Movie Review: Priest (2011)


Vampire Hunting: Judge Dredd Style

A Film Review of Priest

By: Lawrence Napoli



Back in the 1990s, when comic book and graphic novel adaptations had not yet been pilfered by the Hollywood machine, the waters for this type of action film were still being tested.  Judge Dredd, one of the UK’s most popular comic strips/books, was such an experiment in that it was not a main stream license, but clearly had the look, style and prerequisite violence all good action films aspire to have.  The Hollywood adaptation in 1995 was a valiant effort that boasted big names: Sly Stallone, Armande Asante, Rob Schneider and Diane Lane – and a big budget of around $70 million dollars.  This film turned a decent profit at the box office, but not nearly enough to spawn a sequel, let alone a franchise.  Still, the production value was high, the look was sharp, the story was droll but it was all about seeing Stallone shoot and blow things up – i.e. light popcorn fun for everyone.

As we fast forward to 2011, comic/graphic art adaptations are running rampant with few unraveling tales half as interesting as their source material and fewer still willing to engage in quality filmmaking.  Priest is a film adaptation that shares many similarities with Judge Dredd:  Ambiguous license?  Check.  Dystopian future?  Check.  Mega cities versus the wasteland?  Check.  Hard-line authority to maintain control over the populace?  Yessir!  All one has to do is substitute judges/cops for priests/monsignors and crooks with “vampires” for the two films to be virtually indistinguishable.  Neither film makes any apologies for presenting themselves as the most generic of action films with common plots and character types that anyone with a high school equivalency could generate. 

What is supposed to make Priest unique is that it’s about some Christian religious sect training their priests into superhuman warriors in order to counter the threat of “vampire” destruction and domination.  This presents a very intriguing dichotomy in having men and women who have been called to a life of peace and service be compelled to use their unique genetic gifts for violence and combat.  Unfortunately, the priestly side of these warriors is barely acknowledged, let alone established, in this film.  Aside from the fact they have crosses tattooed on their faces and they make the sign of the cross gesture, there is nothing about these individuals that make them worthy of being called “priests.”  At least the judges in Judge Dredd behaved like their namesakes: made accusations, pleas are given, guilty or innocent and then punishment is rendered.  The priests in Priest are nothing more than X-men like thugs who engage in select wet-work as assigned by their superiors.  Thus, we are left with yet another generic action film that chooses to actively ignore the one element that would make it unique in order to play up the “vampire” hunting angle which is only present in every other film these days.  The script by Cory Goodman is as uninspired as the concept of Priest presented in the aforementioned manner.  The dialogue is manageable, but the exposition (especially during the introductory animation) was written with a 5th grade proficiency.  Some of the lines are laugh-out-loud ridiculous, causing one to wonder how anyone ever made a salary for writing them.

The action and special effects in Priest equate to Matrix-light.  Blending bullet time with swordplay (or any edged weapon) was acceptable, but like I said, nothing you really haven’t seen before.  I found the digital design for the “vampires” to be curious in that the only vampiric element to them happens to be their teeth, but then, even saber-toothed tigers could be called vampires if that was the only necessary criteria.  The “vampires” of Priest are simply monsters with limited intelligence that behave more like a giant, mutated ant colony.  I found the mega city design to be a particularly interesting blend of gothic and tech, so naturally the majority of the film is spent trudging through the arid wasteland.  The costume design is a retro throwback to the American Wild West for those who live outside the mega cities.  This furthers the contrast with the industrial/tech of the cities, but you’ll probably see these exact same concepts for Cowboys & Aliens.

An actor of multiple talents, Paul Bettany is known to choose his film roles for diversity in character, plot and scope – which is interesting seeing how close in proximity his role in Priest shares with his role in Legion.  “I did Legion (2009) so I could shoot a big gun and channel Jackie Chan.”  However, a little internet research reveals a cryptic attraction to the juxtaposition of that which is holy and that which is violent.  “I was brought up Catholic.  I’m lapsed.  From the age of three I was with the nuns.  Now I’m an atheist.  I think religion does a lot for us but I can’t quite believe it.”  Combine all of this with his role in The Da Vinci Code (2006) and it is clear that the man has strong feelings about the subject matter without the conviction that might limit his exploration as an artist.  Chances are we will not see Bettany follow in the footsteps of Bruce Willis, but we will continue to see excellent performances in characters that traverse the landscape of moral ambiguity.  Such is the case as the title role in Priest.  Instead of Jackie Chan, Bettany is channeling Clint Eastwood, specifically the facial stoicism complimented by the gruff tone of his spaghetti western days.  Two things make his performance work: 1) his American accent rarely breaks and 2) the conscious amplification of base and rasp to his voice is subtle and not laughingly overt like Christian Bale in The Dark Knight

The rest of the cast makes due with severe script limitations.  Karl Urban continues to bank on his tough guy look as Black Hat and whether he’s playing Bones in the Star Trek reboots or Vaako in The Chronicles of Riddick I wouldn’t want to mess with the man under any circumstance.  He probably could play softer characters, but would it be as awkward as watching Macaulay Culkin doing Shakespeare?  (By the way, Urban was cast as Judge Dredd in a film reboot titled: Dredd which is currently in post-production)  Maggie Q continues to get her Femme Nikita on with her role as Priestess, the subliminal love interest for Priest.  Someone ought to contact Maggie’s press secretary and suggest seeking out roles that don’t simply require punches and kicks.  That is, unless she’s comfortable with being type cast as the female, Americanized Jackie Chan.  Cam Gigandet fulfills every ho hum aspect of “the pretty boy saving his girlfriend,” but I felt his character was a tad redundant to the role Priest plays.

 All in all, Priest is remarkable for how average it is.  Conventions in film become quite disconcerting when they are regurgitated ad nauseam where “average” begins to equate to “bad.”  I will stop just short of that criticism, but this film will be at the top of the list for films to be forgotten during the summer of 2011.  Save your money for the big boys and check out Priest on-demand.  My guess is that time will be coming very soon.