REVIEW: Priest [2011]

Score: 6/10 | ★ ★ ½

Rating: PG-13 | Runtime: 87 minutes | Release Date: May 13th, 2011 (USA)
Studio: Screen Gems / Sony Pictures Releasing
Director(s): Scott Stewart
Writer(s): Cory Goodman / Min-Woo Hyung (graphic novel)

“There has always been man and there have always been vampires”

The war may be over but the false sense of peace is merely a charade. All the church has needed to keep order is the lie cultivated that vampires have been neutralized. While the battle that waged for years and risked worldwide destruction may have ended, the threat remains. With the help of priests—clergymen trained in the art of vampire combat—the church found a way to win in darkness. These men and women tattooed with a cross down the center of their faces turned the table and made it so the sun was no longer humanity’s only weapon. But the imprisonment of the bloodsuckers onto reservations wasn’t the end. And while the priests were disbanded and stripped of their authority to kill in God’s name, the queen vampire left behind began to hatch a new strategy along with an unlikely ally.

Based on the graphic novel series from Min-Woo Hyung, Priest begins with a nightmare recalling the chaotic nature of the fight. The post-apocalyptic world’s most fierce warrior (Paul Bettany) leads his team into a vampire hive with the hopes of killing their queen once and for all. It’s an opportunity that quickly turns into an ambush as the slimy, blind, and sharp-toothed monsters rip through the cavernous home to snatch up the unsuspecting men of God. His guilt in leading them to slaughter is unshakeable, but the memory of letting his comrade (Karl Urban) slip from his grasp hits the hardest. The images are the last remnants of a war thought to be over—human survivors taking up residence within a walled community run by the church and vampires left to wander the desolate wasteland beyond.

Directed by Scott Charles Stewart—reuniting him with his Legion star Bettany—the aesthetic brought forth is attractive. Shrouded in shadows, this world is like any dystopic creation at the hands of an oppressor. Lead by a collective of monsignors, it is Orelas (Christopher Plummer) who takes command. Speaking through recorded billboards as armored men keep the peace down below, the population owes their lives to the church and is forever in its debt. They wander through the cities, look up to partake in the sign of the cross when required, and amble into sidewalk confessionals. Complete with choose your own repentance by a push of the pound key, these boxes are more like a Moviephone call than facilitator for spiritual guidance. Law is bred from religion and God has become a force to blindly follow through fear.

Thankfully the filmmakers don’t wallow too much, instead deciding to streamline the tale into the tale’s basic requirements. Any exposition needed to understand our entrance into this world comes from a stylized animation sequence at the start. Once we are filled in on the history, we are thrust into the saga’s newest chapter. With priests re-integrated into society unsuccessfully, they are left to remember the blood spilled in the name of their Lord. Unable to find work or purpose and still leading a life of celibacy away from the families they were taken from in their youth, life becomes a dark sleepwalk towards oblivion. But no matter how brainwashed the masses are by Orelas and his minions, Bettany cares about nothing else besides finding the beasts who have taken his niece.

It is a young sheriff named Hicks (Cam Gigandet) who finds Priest and tells him of the tragedy. Bettany’s brother Owen (Stephen Moyer) and his wife Shannon (Mädchen Amick) were attacked in their home and left for dead as Lucy (Lily Collins) is taken hostage. We can infer the deed was done to draw the retired soldiers out of exile, secret familial relations not yet uncovered used to set things into motion so the vampires can once and for all take over the world. It therefore isn’t just a quest for revenge on the part of Bettany, but also one to stand up against the force he was bred to destroy. The church is unwilling to let the public fall into despair, however, and Orelas ignores his fellow monsignor Chamberlain’s (Alan Dale) belief in vampire resurgence. Knowing it might be true, he still forbids the Priest from leaving the city for the greater good.

Bettany has no choice but to go, so he and Hicks leave to visit the hives and find what is brewing within the vampire community. Orelas calls for the other priests to hunt him down, but their allegiances are with God and the Priestess (Maggie Q) won’t believe her former general has forsaken his faith. This is where the action begins and the quick cuts of vampiric slaughter splash blood across the screen. These creatures don’t need stakes to the heart, appearing as more animal than human. Crawling about on all fours, the silver blades of thrown crosses and knives cut through their flesh to spill their bloody sacks onto the floor. And while Hicks is a crack shot with his gun, the priests need only their training to prevail.

Many actors come and go breifly—including Moyer, Plummer, Brad Dourif, and more—but it’s understandable at such a quick 87-minutes. We’re left with wall-to-wall action instead of long monologues as secrets are revealed and the new war is set up for the possibility of franchised sequels. The fallen visage of Urban returns in the form of a fantastically eccentric villain we aren’t sure is vampire or ‘familiar’ (an infected servant of the nightcrawlers). His showmanship is flashy and his personality a distinct departure to the life of a priest he once lived, but he has Lucy and nothing will stop Bettany or Gigandet from getting her back. So the fight continues with earnest performances adding more darkness to the visual blacks and grays. It’s style that’s worth your time despite a paltry plot and a depiction of a dilapidated Earth I wouldn’t mind entering again.

[1] Priest (Paul Bettany, left) finishes off Familiar #1 (Josh Wingate) in Screen Gems’ sci-fi action thriller PRIEST. PHOTO BY: Scott Garfield © 2010 Screen Gems, Inc. All Rights Reserved. **ALL IMAGES ARE PROPERTY OF SONY PICTURES ENTERTAINMENT INC. FOR PROMOTIONAL USE ONLY. SALE, DUPLICATION OR TRANSFER OF THIS MATERIAL IS STRICTLY PROHIBITED.
[3] Cam Gigandet stars in Screen Gems’ sci-fi action thriller PRIEST. Photo By: Scott Garfield

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