Ivan Isaacs is a priest. But more then that he is also undead having sold his soul to a devil so that with his near infinite rage he can lay waste to the hordes of zombies infesting the West on his quest to rid the world of thirteen fallen angels, themselves responsible for such devastation.
Sound like a good plot for a film? Well, we’ll never know as Scott Stewart’s interpretation of the Korean comic Priest, from which the above is an incredibly brief explanation of, eschews all but the title to give us a film built upon clichés. His idea revolves around a warrior priest who defies his order to go out into the wilderness to battle vampires that have kidnapped his niece. But more than that, the world created tells of an eon stretching war between man and vampire that was only won by the emergence of the Priests, trained by the church, and with supernatural powers that managed to tip the balance in favour of the human race, who now live in huge walled cities ruled with totalitarian vigour by a ruthless church. Notice the similarities with the original text? Of course not, because there are none – first time screen writer Cory Goodman took nothing of the comic book prose, save the title and a vague western world setting. And yet the world he has created, with the simple revenge plot throughout, could still pay dividends; the ideas therein are quite brilliant, but, and here is the real problem, their execution is so clichéd and obvious that is distracts too much and the film suffers accordingly. And that is a real shame, because underneath it all there is a great film struggling to get out.
The opening credits montage, complete with narration, sets the scene for this alternative world. Mankind and Vampire have been at war forever. The vampires are sightless monstrosities, indiscriminately killing their way through the human race. Once bitten, if left alive, humans become the vampire familiars, slaves to their will, looking after their masters during the day. For day is still the dominion of Man, vampires are extremely photosensitive, weakened and burned by daylight. But even with that advantage Mankind was still no match for their numbers and cunning. For centuries the war raged scorching the Earth into a barren wasteland. The church built vast walled cities and Mankind retreated into them. But when all hope seemed lost the Priests were founded, blessed by God with supernatural powers and trained by the church, these deadly warriors knew nothing but how to kill vampires – and they were ruthless at it. With the Priests in the frontline the tide of the war turned and Mankind defeated the vampire horde imprisoning the remaining few never to see the night again. However, the world was devastated; Mankind had to continue to live in his walled cities, and the church ruled with absolute power. The Priesthood was disbanded and its members cast into a society that feared and loathed them, and they were ill-equipped to handle civilian life, many taking the most menial of tasks just to stay above the breadline, while others, embittered, struggle to cope with life and fall ever closer into madness.
Sounds good right? Plenty of ideas there – a film set in an alternative world where men and vampires are at war. A power hungry Church keeping Mankind in check within walled cities and rigorous Faith. Skilled warriors that are no longer needed, struggling to cope with a life that they do not know how to handle. These ideas and more are buried within the opening minutes, a tantalising glimpse of what could be, any of which could be expanded upon to make a feature film, but sadly nothing like it comes to pass. Instead we are plunged into the kidnap of a teen girl by creatures unknown, before the introduction of our protagonist, Priest. As discussed, a priest is a warrior with supernatural powers; speed, strength and accuracy are just a few of their attributes; they are akin to a ‘Jedi’ with the fighting prowess, preferring knives and fists compared to projectile weapons, and that fact that they are blessed with these powers, found and taken by the Church for training (Jedi Council, padawan etc.) and the sacrifices they have to make to be a part of the priesthood. Though unlike the Jedi they are efficient killing machines and know little else, so once the war was over and they are forced back into society, few can adapt. This is clearly allegorical of any combatant who has suffered at the hands of war and is then meant to forget their training and take up life as a civilian. There are plenty of films that follow such journeys, and Priest barely hints at it, which is a shame as there are plenty of emotional depths to be explored. The Priest of the title is played by Paul Bettany, and I’d love to know what has happened to him? At his best he is an astonishingly good actor, so good that you can’t see him act, look at his early history, Gangster No.1, A Beautiful Mind, Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World (teaming up again with Russell Crowe and acting him off the page without even trying), Wimbledon, The Da Vinci Code – ok the last two are naff films, but he outshines that to be the best thing about them. But Legion? And now Priest? (Coincidentally sharing the same director). Ok, he has that undeniable presence and seems to become the part despite the ridiculousness of it all, but he is so much better than these films, and I wish he would find the right vehicle to bring him back on track. Once again, as Priest, he is typically wachable, he brings a gravitas and urgency to his parts and this is no exception, even with the clichéd ridden and, at times, cringe inducing lines he is forced to spout, he is still the best thing about this film. It is a testament to his skill that through just a few scant character development scenes and one liners we still manage to understand and feel for his plight – the lone warrior unable to hide in plane site due to the Priestly Cross tattooed on his forehead, and unable to feel part of a society that shuns him due to the power he holds due to his training.
When Hicks, an outland sheriff seeks Priest out, informing him of the kidnap, we are privy to another squandered idea; that of an all powerful Church holding mankind to ransom with its vice like grip on their fears. Headed up by Monsignor Orelas, the face, and voice, of the Church, he is a man who, despite his all powerful position, is still afraid of the vampires and worse still afraid of losing his grip on society by categorically denying the existence of the defeated foe, in spite of all the evidence to the contrary. These oft used ideas could have been used to excellent advancement, indeed the fact that Priest has to defy his Church should be, and tries to play out as, the backbone of the story, but they are wasted so quickly you are left reeling. Christopher Plummer takes on the part of Orelas and plays him with terrific boo hissability and a staunch demeanour, ‘my way or the highway’ kind of guy, which, for a totalitarian dictatorship works really well – though a little history on why such decisions were made might have been nice, just to grey the black and white a bit, but sadly not on this occasion. Priest is denied his argument for the re-instatement of his robes and thus he has no choice but to ‘go against the Church’ and thus ‘go against God’ as he dons his fighting uniform, and rides his motorcycle out into the wilderness.
Immediately you can see the biggest problem with this feature, that of overused ideas in other (arguably) better films. Shades of Underworld (vampire war and hybrid), Judge Dredd (megacities), 1984 (totalitarian dictatorship ruled with fear), First Blood (skilled warrior unable to fit into society), spaghetti western genre in general (setting, man with no name) are just a few of the very obvious clichés that make up this film’s design and story. Now, this is not necessarily a bad thing, Equilibrium and The Crow are two such titles that suffer from the same fault, but both managed to attain cult status and rise above their obvious inspiration. But somehow I don’t think Priest will manage the same feat, which is a shame as I didn’t hate it upon my first view. It does take itself extremely seriously and it rockets ahead with a furious pace and both of these elements are to its detriment. There is simply no time to develop the characters, simple one line dialogue coupled with their look is put forward as enough to define them. There is no hint of tongue in cheek or of any lighter moments to rise above the gloom. Hell there’s not enough characterisation despite some valiant twists to steer the motivations of the characters. And it wouldn’t have taken much, a few character beats here and there just to bring about some thought could have worked wonders into bringing the story to life. As it is we are left with something rather sterile, despite it looking incredible. For this is one thing that the film really does have going for it – its production design and over stylised look are great as eye candy. I love the fact that the vampires are nothing but blood thirsty killing machines, sightless monsters that gorge themselves in blood – in the vacuous tedium of teen vampire love films/TV series, these horrific monsters put the bite well and truly back in.
Once on the road, Priest rendezvous with Hicks, played like a lump of wood by Cam Gigandet. He has his own reasons for wanting to rescue Lucy, Priest’s neice, played by Lily Collins who has little more to do than looked scared and sweaty – which she manages fine. Towns outside the walled cities are very much of the ‘wild west’ variety complete with ‘snake oil’ merchants, in this case peddling a liquor guaranteed to stave off vampires, and played with absolute relish by Brad Dourif whose performance, and indeed look, reminded me a wee bit too much of Wormtongue. Also, on the road, we are introduced to Priestess, one of a number of other priests sent out by the Church to retrieve Priest from his reckless ways. Priestess is brought to life by the stunning Maggie Q, though 'life' might be a bit of a misnomer. She is given a little back story and there are hints at a previous and forbidden relationship between her and Priest, a development that should have been capitalised on, but is again never followed up on. She is typically aloof and thus a bit cold, even when she tries to emote with Priest about a possible future; I can’t blame Maggie, this is just a function of the script as shot, but it certainly lets the film down even further.
This unlikely trio then discover the horrific truth of what the vampires are planning, and worst yet, who their leader is. No spoiler here as his photo is on the back cover! It seems, an ill-fated attack on the same vampire lair during the war saw one of Priest’s companions fall to his apparent death, but not so, he was revived by the vampire ‘queen’ and turned into a vampire/human hybrid but with all the skills of a priest. This foe is shown to be utterly formidable when he and the horde vanquish a local town and take out three priests who happen to be there looking for Priest (this lack of character names is properly confusing huh?), thus building up the tension for the final confrontation. Well nearly. Then an element of speed is introduced as the vampires, on board a train, are heading towards the walled city where their fury will be unstoppable with no one to stop them. Unfortunately this urgency is somewhat negated by the very pace of the film itself, it was such a rush to get to this point, what is the rush to continue on?
I guess you can tell what type of film this will be just from the teaser words on the back of the case, anything with the line “now it’s personal” immediately tells you what to expect. And you get exactly what you expect, but with the bonus of an incredible looking film (not the 3D by the way, the style, more of that in the picture section), making this a very frustrating experience. You never really get over the ‘seen it all before done better’ feeling, but it does look amazing, and, as I have stated, I didn’t hate it; having now seen it a couple of times for this review it has even grown on me somewhat. But what gets to me the most is that it could have great fun, if only it had taken a bit of time to explore the fantastical world it created. Ah well. I do hope it finds a place in the home format, though, I suspect, not in 3D – read on to find out why.