Visual effects man Scott Charles Stewart has fought the minions of destruction once before, using the mighty weapon of Paul Bettany to hold back an angel apocalypse in Legion. Yet nothing, it seems, could stem the tide of vampires in his dystopian vision based on the manhwa (Korean comic) by Hyung Min-woo. This is what comes from relying on the British too often. Fusing religious imagery, Westerns and horror, Hyung’s Priest is a very different beast to what has made its way to the screen after several misfires.
A war has existed since time immemorial between humans and vampires, with the former having the advantage of daylight. Locking themselves away in walled cities, the humans created a set of ultimate weapons against the vampires: superhuman warriors known as “Priests”. With the vampires seemingly all but extinct, the Priests are outcasts in a totalitarian Church-run world they helped protect. At least that is until some fringe-dwellers are attacked by vampires, and one Priest (Paul Bettany, The Tourist) goes against the wishes of the council of Monsignors (led by Christopher Plummer, Beginners) and returns to once again wage war on the fanged enemy.
Taking a page out of John Ford’s The Searchers, the heart of Priest is in the Western mythos, with Paul Bettany swaggering his way into the John Wayne tradition. The world that Hyung created is an intriguing one, blending a very cool aesthetic of steam-punk with the wastelands of the old west. The world has almost limitless potential for exploration, and the dichotomy between Church and state is one that could have given rise to all manner of story development. It is a shame that debut screenwriter Cory Goodman was chosen to tackle the script duties, as this is the one element that ultimately lets the whole down. There are some magnificent set-pieces, including a spectacular climax aboard a train that could have easily stepped straight out of Kim Jee-woon’s The Good, The Bad and The Weird. Similarly, there are plenty of moments in dark caves that result in genuine scares, and are swiftly followed by the kind of genre-bending martial arts mashup that betrays Stewart’s and the source material’s origins. Yet these are moments, and while the good moments outweigh the misguided, Goodman’s script doesn’t have the necessary line-through needed to pull it all together and become something truly classic.
At some some point between Wimbledon and Priest, Paul Bettany has become a bad-ass action hero. In this role, Bettany works fairly convincingly, and is not too far removed from his Legion performance. His opposite number in Karl Urban (Star Trek) is telegraphed early in the film, and while he does bring a great deal of menace to the role, much of this resides in his hat. The rest of the cast, and in particular Maggie Q (Mission: Impossible 3) and Lily Collins (The Blind Side), are merely window dressing in this very stylish action film. The film is called Priest after all. It is good showcase for the visual effects, and the character design on the a-typical vampires are quite inspired and reminiscent of Guillermo del Toro’s singular vision. At the end of the day, the film may take itself a tiny bit too seriously, but it is nevertheless fun, from a cheeky bit of casting in “Vampire Bill” Stephen Moyer (True Blood) as a homesteader victim to the nitro-powered bikes recharged by sunlight. Clumsy allegories aside, Priest packs quite a few punches in its brief running time, even if they don’t all hit home.
Priest is released 25 August 2011 in Australia from Sony.