Retro Review: PRIEST (2011){0}

A optimist would say that the second collaboration between director Scott Stewart and actor Paul Bettany would, by simple logic, have to be an improvement over their first one: the rather dire 2009 effort known as Legion. A pessimist would say there’s no prooof that their second film, the comic book adaptation Priest, would be any better than Legion, and a realist would, of course, decide to simply judge each flick on its own merits. All of that is an elaborate way of saying that Priest is indeed a (vast) improvement over Legion, but also that that’s not that tough a task to accomplish. Maybe by the time Stewart and Bettany get together for their seventh collaboration, they’ll cook up a full-bore classic. Until that unlikely time, we do have Priest, which is broad, pulpy, silly, and weird … but not stupid and dull. That alone makes it cooler than Legion. And yes, what you’re about to read is actually a positive review.

Based (albeit very loosely I am told) on the graphic novels by Min-Woo Hyung, Priest is an irrepressibly wacky genre concoction that stuffs so many themes into one story … suffice to say that material like this often works much better on the page than it does on the screen. One could describe the 97-minute Priest flick as a “western set in a dystopian future in which the clergy is the ruling class and has trained its strongest priests to do battle with the millions of vampires that live just outside the massive gated walls.” If you’re already having visions of “Jonah Hex meets Wild Wild West“, I can’t say I’d blame you. But for all the (seemingly dozens) of stories and movies that Priest begs, borrows and steals from … there’s still some legitimate quality on display and, yes, some strangely-flavored fun to be had.

Only so-so as an out-and-out action flick (although the big train finale is pretty cool), Priest finds strength in the simple pleasures of weirdly amusing world-building. The action scenes are quick-cut … but the scenery is cool! So while it’s occasionally silly when our hero Priest (Paul Bettany) breaks out an odd Catholicized mega-weapon with which to mow down the endless throngs of bestial vampires — the movie is also pretty cool in the way it slips back and forth from earnest Firefly moments to blatantly Blade Runner-inspired futuristic stuff … but the best one can say about the quick little flick is how it follows Priest on his basic but engaging quest to discover which vamps kidnapped his estranged niece and why. It’s all familiar stuff, and screenwriter Cory Goodman earns points for approaching all this hoo-hah with a degree of sincerity, yet there’s still an odd twinkle in the otherwise steely eyes of Paul Bettany, as if to imply that none of this futuristic western quasi-religious nonsense is meant to be taken all that seriously.

Mr. Bettany does a fine enough job of keeping the craziness somewhat grounded, but Priest takes a hard left into maudlin territory once our hero discovers a sidekick in Maggie Q, who seems to exist only to give our main character a patently uninteresting back-story to talk about for precisely two clunky scenes. Surprisingly colorful, however, is Cam Gigandet as a well-intentioned but inexperienced sheriff who tags along because, wouldn’t you just know it, Priest’s kidnapped niece is also Cam’s doe-eyed lady love. Plus there’s Christopher Plummer as an inevitably evil monsignor, Karl Urban as a super-sized vampire boss, Lily Collins as the kidnapped eye-candy, and Brad Dourif, who enlivens two obvious scenes — and then vanishes for no good reason.

There are tons of “genre-blenders” like Priest, and each one of ‘em, goofball though they may be, seems to have its own fair share of supporters. So to those who love and defend flicks like The Book of EliEquilibriumDaybreakersConstantineMax Payne, (yep) Legion, and perhaps even Ultraviolet — here’s another broad yet eclectic little diversion to toss into your rental queue.

Or maybe I’m being a half-star extra-nice because I didn’t have to sit through this lunacy in 3D.