Priest, the second directorial effort from Legion helmer Scott Stewart, is yet another apocalyptic action/horror film that’s heavy on breathless spectacle and light on just about everything else that matters. Like Legion, the setting is again a dust-covered desert wasteland, albeit this time around on a parallel Earth that’s been decimated by both nuclear war and a centuries-old battle between humans and a race of vicious animalistic vampires.
Very loosely adapted from the TokyoPop comic book of the same name created by Hyung Min-woo, the movie tells the story of a Jedi-like warrior Priest (Paul Bettany), who along with his former comrades has been relegated to the fringes of society – their prominent crucifix facial tattoos a permanent signifier of their role on the front lines of the war against the vampires. In an early scene we witness the effects of their social ostracization when a young boy is quickly ushered away from Priest by his mother, who casts wary glances back at him amid frantic whispers of “we don’t talk to Priests”.
After a brief animated prologue depicting the history of this alternate reality (hand-drawn by Samurai Jack creator Genndy Tartakovsky), we are quickly thrown into the story when we witness a teenage girl and her parents being attacked by an army of vampires at an isolated outpost. The adults slaughtered as their horrified daughter takes refuge in a cellar, we cut away just as her hiding place is discovered and the shadow of an imposing figure engulfs her cowering frame.
It turns out that the girl is Priest’s teenaged niece Lucy (Lily Collins) and her kidnapper a powerful half-vampire/half-human known as Black Hat (Karl Urban), who is leading a new crop of the animalistic bloodsuckers in a rebellion against the human race. Receiving news of her capture from a hotheaded young lawman named Hicks (Cam Gigandet) – also Lucy’s boyfriend – Priest springs into action over the protestations of his superiors, a corrupt group of steely-eyed monsignors who exercise an almost Orwellian grip over the remaining human population.
Dispatched by the monsignors to hunt him down (“dead or alive”) along with three other warrior priests is the beautiful Priestess (Maggie Q), who summarily defies the monsignors’ orders and joins up with the two men in their quest to save Lucy from becoming one of the “Familiars” – a word used for half-human/half-vampires who are kept as pale-eyed slaves by their full-blooded counterparts in the quarantined areas to which they have been relegated.
Thankfully, Stewart and Legion co-writer Peter Schink aren’t responsible for the script this time around, which was instead penned by newcomer Cory Goodman (Apollo 18). Given the former pair’s tendency toward both narrative illogic and expository dialogue spew in Legion, this is definitely a step in the right direction (“When I was a shawty” may go down as one of the most ill-advised bits of dialogue ever written for a mainstream film), though it’s not to say that the script here is necessarily good – it’s still rather prosaic and dispensable. Nevertheless, it possesses a welcome sense of forward momentum that was largely absent from Stewart’s previous effort.
Also on the positive side, Priest is yet another potent demonstration of Stewart’s considerable strengths as a visual stylist. While I could’ve done without the CG-rendered vamps (the utilization of practicals in the close-up shots would’ve gone a long way in making them feel like actual threats rather than the diaphanous video-game baddies they come across as here) and the post-converted 3-D, there are several sequences of kinetic, beautifully-composed action in the film – particularly in the third act speeding-train showdown – that are a five-star feast for the eyes. The widescreen vistas concocted by Stewart and cinematographer Don Burgess are also truly stunning, giving the proceedings a Leone-esque scope that is ultimately betrayed by the relative dullness of what actually happens.
Indeed, all the eye-popping visuals in the world can’t paper over the hollow core that lays at the heart of Priest. Though the cast is fine and does more or less what the shallow script requires of them, the character moments are rote when they should have been redemptive. There are of course the requisite romantic elements here – both between Priest and Priestess (their barely-apparent “sexual tension” hindered by his oath of celibacy) and Hicks and Lucy – but rather than elevate the film’s emotional stakes, they instead land with a resounding thud that would no doubt echo far and wide across the film’s cracked and magnificent dystopian landscape.