Too much Dredd, not enough Blade Runner.
Here’s the easiest way to describe Priest: it’s like the disappointing, crappy second movie in a trilogy that doesn’t exist. That makes this film doubly maddening. Not only is it just plain weak, overall, but it also had potential to be a very entertaining franchise. The problem with Priest is that what happened before this film begins and what could happen in a subsequent film is much more interesting that what we get to see.
Priest is a hybrid of sorts. It takes place in a dystopian, post-apocalyptic, sci-fi world in which vampires and humans have always existed and have been at constant war. A Church-sponsored elite group of warriors called Priests have eradicated the vampire threat and now humans are free to live in Blade Runner-like cities of misery. Outside the cities, however, is a Judge Dredd-like wasteland that is populated with Old West style settlers and “reservations” of vampires. So this movie has a few Blade Runner visuals in a Judge Dredd plot. For those of that have seen Dredd, you know that no amount of visual wonder can save that kind of garbage. (More on the plot similarities of Dredd in the spoiler section.)
Vampires, dystopia, Old West, warrior-priests…Priest is just a bit too busy to decide what it wants to be and that is ultimately its downfall. The strange combo of sci-fi and western isn’t new; it just isn’t handled well here (to see it handled well, please watch “Firefly”). Sure, there are some interesting contradictions like candle-lit prairie homes, record players, old-timey train depots juxtaposed with high powered guns, futuristic bombs, and super-fast motorcycles. That stuff gives the film a certain style, but it never really melds together in a natural way.
The film almost gets by on its visuals alone, but the action was handled so haphazardly that this film cannot even be recommended as a mindless action film. There are a few awesome moments, sure, but the standard fight scenes are edited in such a way that it is hard to tell what is happening. There’s a lot of jumping and then something ends up dead. The 3-D isn’t a saving grace, either. In fact, the only time the effect works well is when there is an overhead establishing shot. Other than that, it almost seemed as if the movie was in 2-D.
Priest’s greatest fault is that the filmmakers present plenty of possible themes but never provide enough material to back any of them up. There could be more to the idea of vampires being treated like Native Americans by being placed in reservations, but vampires are never really treated as sympathetically as Native Americans are. Speaking of that, wouldn’t it be much more interesting if the vampires were a bit more humanized? Sure, it’s nice that the vampires aren’t sparkling pretty boys for a change, but when an entire race is being treated this way shouldn’t there be room for questions like, “Is there a way to co-exist?” This is one of those rare films where the villain actually makes the most sense (much more on that in spoilers). There are more examples of potential deep questions, but the point is that this film starts to ask them, then gets bored and decides to throw in a slow motion action scene instead.
A good performance could save a film like Priest but even though the cast is impressive, the characters are not. They are all one-note to say the least. Paul Bettany is in his comfort zone playing the tortured soul…who is also a badass (he has got to be the most unlikely action star working today). Karl Urban has a fun moment pretending to conduct an orchestra as vampires terrorize a town but he is literally credited as “Black Hat.” No room for character development there. Maggie Q gets the film’s most badass moment but little else. And Cam Gigandet just looks out of place completely.
There are not many redeeming qualities to Priest. It’s only ninety minutes long but still feels over two hours, there are no compelling characters, it squanders any chance of being thought-provoking, and the action is sub-par. But there are decent moments and most of the visuals (mainly the city) are impressive. No need to check this out in the theatres (a little late at this point anyway), but it’s worth a rental. Just don’t get your hopes up.
Random Thoughts (SPOILERS)
Okay, so vampires are not humans that have been transformed into vampires. They are a species unto themselves. Cool, fine with me. Here's my problem: Karl Urban's character represents the first truly human/vampire crossbreed who has supernatural powers and can walk around in the sun; how is he not better than the miserable city-dwelling human population? Sure, humans are better than those base vampires, which are nothing more than snarling wolf-like creatures, but humans damn sure aren't better than Urban's crossbreed. I know this is a common theme, the debate on whether or not vampirism is better than humanity (see Interview with the Vampire, among others), but this is different in that the world has never seen a real hybrid. The point of all this is that the film should have entertained this possibility. It would have been much more compelling. Let's not let the bad guy win just to be different, let's let the bad guy win because he's right.
As for the Judge Dredd stuff, just think about it: an elite, powerful warrior forced to leave his protective city for a wasteland filled with danger only to have to do battle with his former partner. The basic outline is identical...minus the appearance of Rob Schneider, of course. Oh, and the film's basic plot is very close to The Searchers, as well.
So the priests are like the Jedi of Christ? It’s never really explained if they are supernatural or not, even though there is that animated expository intro. Or maybe I just missed it. Anyway, I didn't understand what made them so special.
Stephen Moyer (Bill from "True Blood") gets killed by vampires…funny
More topics that could've been explored: soldiers with Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome, which Bettany and Q obviously suffer from.
-Vampires as Native Americans. They're on reservations, but they are treated as the bad guys here...that theme doesn't make sense because the Indians were certainly not history's bad guys.
-The role of religion in society. Sure, crosses are all over the place, but the ramifications of a Church-controlled world are left by the wayside.