Michael Moran writes for Bleeding Cool:
Almost all films, to a greater or lesser extent, are set in imaginary worlds. In our world people stumble, mumble, forget important details and go to the toilet far more often than their screen counterparts. That’s what makes going to the movies more fun than just looking out of the window.
When films are set in the far future, or the mythic past, or in the world of comic book superheroes there are certain tropes and conventions in place that provide a shorthand for a lot of the scene-setting.
Priest is, awkwardly, set more or less in the present day but on a parallel Earth. Movies set in parallel universes have been made before – Watchmen, The Matrix, The Wizard Of Oz, Super Mario Brothers – but the difficulty always exists of explaining the rules of the world we’re in while keeping things running along nicely.
At a tidy 88 minutes director Scott Charles Stewart keeps Priest running along very briskly indeed. He does a decent job too of explaining the rules of the universe he has loosely adapted from a culty Korean comic book.
But has he managed to deliver a good film? When measured against the likes of The Last Picture Show, True Grit or, say, 12 Angry Men then no, not really. Priest is unutterably daft, depends (as many action flicks do) on preposterous coincidences and squanders little of its brief running time on characterisation.
However if you enjoyed stylish action-packed nonsense along the lines of Equilibrium, Ultraviolet, or Resident Evil chances are you’ll like this too. The plot fairly zips along, the post-apocalyptic world looks absolutely lovely and the film has some remarkably inventive action sequences.
The post-converted 3D is as convincing as I have yet seen. In some scenes where no actors are present, and in the deliciously-rendered animated prologue, the eye is occasionally fooled into thinking that it’s looking at solid objects, rather than just an image on a screen.
That may be in part because of the 3D glasses that were provided at the screening. They were nifty goggles that wrapped almost all the way around the viewer’s head. They also seemed to have some active electronic component rather than being simply polarised plastic. Comfy and efficacious.
From this point on, readers are warned that it’s difficult to say much about the film without giving away certain details they might prefer to discover for themselves.
Priest takes place in a world where for centuries humans have been warring with vampires. Humanity’s ultimate weapon against the vamps is a highly-trained cadre of priests who have more to do with Neo or Obi Wan Kenobi than they do with Father Ted.
Come to think of it, Priest is a terrible title. Ninja Vicar or Special Forces Exorcist might have been closer. Priest sounds like a tortured melodrama starring – I dunno – Linus Roache or someone…
For a daft action flick Priest boasts a pretty solid star cast. Paul Bettany divides his time between proper thesping and hilariously bonkers B-flicks such as Legion. He clearly had such a good time on Legion that he has rejoined with its director here.
Karl Urban turns up early, and for a moment has you thinking he is pulling the Segal Executive Decision trick. Brad Dourif throws in some of his signature medicine show/Child Catcher shapes. Nikita star Maggie Q plays a kickass lady priest who can do all the reality-bending jedi stuff that Bettany does without even smudging her foundation.
Cam Gigandet gets a surprisingly big role as the small-town sheriff Hicks. Is it deliberate that his character’s name reminds me of Michael Biehn’s sorbet-cool space marine in Aliens? I dunno. All I know is Aliens references are coming outta the goddam walls, man.
The vampires that Bettany and his fellow priests fight are eyeless, decidedly non-human creatures that live in hives and depend on a rarely-seen queen. Despite the presence of undead Southern gentleman Bill Compton in the cast, these vampires are more Pan’s Labyrinth than True Blood.
Bites from vampires are generally fatal. Some humans are turned into ‘familiars’ by a bite. They look a bit like Marilyn Manson and act a bit like Mad Max cannon fodder. Karl Urban – we knew he’d be back – plays a priest who has been transformed into something else again. He’s so evil he doesn’t even have a name, just a hat. A Black Hat.
Black Hat leads a vampire attack on some of Bettany’s relatives, precipitating the revenge/rescue arc that drives the plot of the movie. Bettany leaves the fortified city (which I hope the production designers of the Judge Dredd reboot are studying closely) hops onto his solar-powered superbike (ditto) and sets off across the Cursed Earth (more or less) for his showdown with Black Hat.
Unfortunately Urban’s too likeable to make a proper boo-hiss villain. He needed more screen time, and more evil things to do in it.
Still, there’s kung-fu, gun-fu and God-fu. Things blow up. There are futuristic motorcycles and Victorian oil-lamps, The priests have nifty Christian—themed ninja weapons. Hicks has a fancy Green Hornet villain pistol, the vampires have slime. Black Hat has a hat. Citizen Kane it ain’t, but there are worse ways to spend an hour and half.