Priest (2011)

2012 #15
Scott Stewart | 84 mins | TV | 2.35:1 | USA / English | 12 / PG-13

PriestIn a dystopian church-ruled future (could there be any other kind of church-ruled world), in which a war between men and vampires raged for centuries but has recently been settled (in man’s favour), no-longer-needed warrior-priest Paul Bettany is called upon to go against his vows and leave the city to rescue his niece after her parents are murdered and she is kidnapped in a vampire attack. I could go on, but it’s the kind of plot that sounds far more complicated in a short summary than it is to watch on screen.

This marks Bettany’s third turn as a Christian killer, after an albino monk in The Da Vinci Code and a deliberately fallen angel in Legion. One’s a villain, one’s the hero; here he’s the good guy again, tipping the balance towards Bettany’s filmography being in favour of Christians Who Kill For A Cause. Legion was also directed by Scott Stewart, so perhaps they share a penchant for kinda-Christian action movies? God knows why.

It begins with a contextless, pointless 90-second ‘flashback’ action sequence. Then there’s a bloodily violent animation re-shaping history’s major wars (Crusades, WW1, more) as one long fight against vampires. Quite good, that bit. It’s designed by Genndy Tartakovsky, creator of Dexter’s Laboratory, Samurai Jack and the 2D Star Wars: Clone Wars series. Then there’s another pre-titles-style bit. For a film under 90 minutes long, it takes its time to get going.

Biker PriestAnd after all that meandering, the story is a bit rushed. It tries to generate character and tension, but hasn’t spent enough time building them to earn it. There’s lots of awful dialogue, flooded with clichés… as is a lot of the plot, and the stock dystopian future setting, and the overuse of slow-mo. There’s some ideas with promise, but they’re largely shunted aside in favour of something from The Big Book of Standard Character Arcs. And I say “promising” — you know exactly how they’d play if the filmmakers had bothered to make more out of them.

Plus there’s a blatant “end of Part One” ending — the story isn’t even close to resolved. It flopped though, so there’s no chance of it being sequelised. And the world doesn’t make complete sense: if “everyone” lives in big cities, why do so many people live in Old West-styled townships in the wasteland? Why are there vampire reservations, why not just kill them all? Etc.

It’s like someone thought of lots of Cool Bits and strung them together irrespective of world or story. And, in fairness, some of the cool bits achieve their aim, in a largely derivative way. And the story’s not that badly constructed — I’ve seen plots that hang together much less well.

Judge DreddNone of this is helped by weak acting, which considering the largely quality cast is probably down to the script and direction. How unlikely is Paul Bettany as an action leading man, eh? I thought Jason Statham was odd enough… And if you want a preview of Karl Urban as Judge Dredd, I imagine his early scenes — face in shadow, gravelly voiced — will be a fair indication.

Visually, I don’t know what’s going on with the lenses used — people’s faces are occasionally noticeably stretched. I at first wondered if my chosen viewing method (Sky Movies Anytime via Virgin Media On Demand — potentially less reliable than a DVD or BD) had for some reason squished or stretched the film, but in most shots things look fine. Maybe I was imagining it, who knows. And while he was getting his lenses muddled, it seems the DoP forgot to bring any lights for most of the shooting. The climax takes place in daylight, but a lot of the rest of it…

I dread to think how it fared in 3D. It’s perhaps telling that most of the action sequences are staged either outdoors or in previously-dark locations that somehow gain a bit of a glow; or, to put it more bluntly, “here’s where you’ll want to see the 3D so we’ve made it brighter”. And 3D is so essential to the film that I didn’t remember it had been released that way until the mysteriously bright cave fight over halfway through. It was post-converted too, so I doubt it looked great.

This always looks coolPriest isn’t bad per se — well, depending on your tolerance levels. It’s no Max Payne, put it that way. And it’s better than Legion. If you can withstand a clichéd plot, laughable dialogue and sorely underdeveloped characters in order to get your fix of brain-in-neutral action, this is a quick (under 80 mins sans credits) and moderately satisfying way to go about it.

2 out of 5

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