Film Review with Robert Mann – Priest

Priest 3D ***
Priest 2D ***

Coming to cinemas just one week after Thor, the second of this summer’s comic book based movies is not preceded by the same positive anticipation and fanboy excitement that came ahead of that film’s release. Rather Priest is a film that deviates so much from its alleged source material that it has lead to widespread outrage from its fans and one with such a low level of anticipation that many had pegged it to be one of 2011’s probable box office flops long ago. All this despite Sony Pictures scheduling the film in between big hitting blockbusters Thor and Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides, something which is either a big show of confidence in the film on the part of the distributor or a huge display of stupidity – and Sony, who but for three films late last year, have experienced a virtually uninterrupted series of box office hits in the states since way back at the start of 2010, have not really shown themselves to be stupid when it comes to scheduling their movies as of late – and giving it a marketing campaign that is quite impressive for a film produced by Screen Gems, the studio who are best known for the Resident Evil movies and whose features are normally rather low key in both the scale of their production and their promotion, as well as releasing a trailer that, in this critic’s opinion at least, actually looks rather good and shows definite promise for the film.

Then again, it is very likely that the people who are saying that this film will be a flop are the fans of the source material and all these gestures mean absolutely nothing to them. To understand just how unfaithful Priest is to its source material it is necessary to highlight the key differences between the two. Created by Hyung Min-woo, the graphic novel that the film is based upon is a manhwa (that’s a Korean comic for those not in the know already) that fuses the western genre with supernatural horror and dark fantasy themes and, notable for its unusual, angular art style, takes place in three different time periods – the Crusades, the Wild West and modern times – telling the story of a battle between humanity and twelve fallen angels. Contrastingly, the film adaptation which has the audacity to state in its trailer that “the acclaimed graphic novel comes to life”, is set in a post apocalyptic future where most people live in futuristic cities ruled by the oppressive Church and where those living in the wastelands outside are constant threat from a vampire menace, a menace which it is the job of warrior priests to combat. 

And if that wasn’t enough even a significant detail such as the cross on the protagonist’s forehead is different in the film to the way it was in the comic, being a tattoo rather than being carved into the character’s head. These contrasts really make it easy to understand why the film is considered to be sacrilege to the fans who regard the graphic novel so religiously and thus make sense of much of the negative word of mouth that has preceded the film. Of course, there is something else that certainly hasn’t done the film any favours in this regard – its connection to last year’s ill received low budget fantasy actioner Legion. Despite Priest not actually being connected to ‘Legion’, many have been quick to denounce as it as a follow-up to that film and it isn’t hard to see how people might come to such a conclusion. Not only are both films produced by Screen Gems but they are also directed by Scott Stewart and star Paul Bettany – even though the latter only joined the cast when original leading man Gerard Butler dropped out. These connections have led many to expect Priest to be a low calibre production on the level of that film although it is necessary to note that this film does not suffer from some of the shortcomings that that one did, not being limited to just one location – that film was set almost entirely around a diner in the middle of a desert, this one boasts a much broader range of locations – or being limited by its production budget in the way that film was – that film only cost $26 million to make whereas early estimates put the budget for this one as high as $70 million, which would be a new high for low budget studio Screen Gems if true. 

Advance word of mouth also won’t have been helped by the repeated delays in the film’s release, which are at least partly attributable to the decision to convert the film to 3D. Earlier this year, the fact that this film was receiving the 3D conversion treatment would have been something certain to inspire a major lack of confidence in the film – after all, such conversions up to that point had been distinctly unremarkable – but now, following the release of Thor which showed that 3D conversion can work, such fears should be allayed somewhat, particularly given that Priest, with all its delays, has probably had far more conversion time than any other film to date, giving it the potential to be one of the best conversions seen since the 3D conversion craze began. Whether the 3D is good or not, though, doesn’t really matter if the film itself isn’t any good. Suffice to say that, with all its deviations from the source material, fans will have already decided that they are going to hate this film and originality is not really something the film has on its side either – not only has the (extremely cool) poster design and certain other aspects made many to think that this film has stolen ideas from videogame Assassins Creed but other inspirations are blatantly evident, among them Judge Dredd, Mad Max, I Am Legend and countless vampire themed movies – but, as demonstrated quite effectively by 2008’s graphic novel adaptation Wanted, a lack of faithfulness to the source material doesn’t necessarily make a movie bad and a lack of originality also doesn’t have to hold a movie back, provided it still entertains as a popcorn movie. 

So, how does Priest really fare – it is every bit as sacrilegious as the fans have already decided it to be or does it actually deliver on some of the promise it has shown in its marketing and turn out as a film worthy of a more godly reception?

For centuries a war has raged between man and vampires, a war which has only been won by humanity thanks to the legendary Warrior Priests whose job it was to hunt down every single one of the vampire menace and lock them away in reservations. The war, however, was not won before much of the world was reduced to a desolate wasteland and most of humanity recluded to the safety of dystopian walled cities ruled by the oppressive Church with only a few choosing to struggle for survival in the “freedom” of the desolate world that lies outside. Following the end of the war, the Priests have disappeared into obscurity, their services no longer needed by the Church that claims that there is no vampire menace anymore. The truth, however, is very different. When his niece Lucy (Lily Collins) is abducted by a murderous pack of vampires under the leadership of the mysterious Black Hat (Karl Urban), Priest (Paul Bettany) tries to get his authority reinstated but Monsignor Orelas (Christopher Plummer), the head of the Church, orders him to stand down or face excommunication and even trusted confidante Monsignor Chamberlain (Alan Dale) turns against him. 

Breaking his sacred vows, Priest ventures out on a quest to find Lucy before she is turned into a vampire and becomes a wanted fugitive in the process, the Church dispatching several Priests to apprehend them, among them Priestess (Maggie Q), who proves sympathetic to his cause. Accompanied on his journey by Hicks (Cam Gigandet), the trigger-fingered young wasteland sheriff boyfriend of Lucy, Priest and Priestess pursue Lucy’s trail and what they find is something far more horrifying than they could have imagined – a vampire army that is intent on the destruction of what’s left of humanity and they are all that stands in its way.

Coming a week after Thor, a comic adaptation that was not only hugely respectful of the comic that it was based upon but was generally all kinds of awesome, Priest stands as an extremely unremarkable comic book movie, being both a film that those who hold its graphic novel inspiration in high regard will absolutely loathe for its complete disregard of the that source material and one that is unlikely to really wow mainstream moviegoers who have little if any knowledge of the original comic. Director Scott Stewart allegedly got feedback from such respected film producers as Sam Raimi, Joshua Donen and Michael De Luca – all of whom are actually producers on this film – but this is somewhat hard to believe given how the promise shown by the film’s trailer is not lived up to by the film itself – something that is clearly a real testament to the effectiveness of Sony Pictures’ marketing campaign but not to the effectiveness of the film they have been marketing. 

While the scale may be much bigger than Legion, the film still falls prey to some of the same flaws that were present in that film. At only 87 minutes long there isn’t a whole lot of plot to speak of, much of what we get really coming in the form of the two opening scenes, firstly one showing how a failed assault on a vampire hive leads to Karl Urban’s character being captured by the vampires and secondly an animated sequence which gives us the backstory of the alternate world within which the film takes place, a world where vampires have always existed and where they have always been at war with mankind, and the story meanders from one scene to the next in the absence of a truly engaging plotline. The potential for subtext is also wasted with the film failing to deliver anything that digs beneath the surface of the plot or that explores the greater potential of the world portrayed within it. The dialogue, while not explicitly bad, also isn’t particularly good either, the conversation based scenes really failing to engage the attention, a major problem considering that there are a surprisingly high number of dialogue based sequences for a film with such a short running time. 

The weak writing also gives the cast very little to work with although many of the actors still try their best with the limited material. Paul Bettany plays a character that isn’t a whole lot different to the roles he played in Legion and The Da Vinci Code but generally proves to be a strong protagonist and proving believable as he goes head to head with his character’s vampiric opponents. Pretty much everyone else in the film, however, is underused or wasted entirely, from Maggie Q, who comes across as little more than a pretty face who can really kick vampire ass, to Karl Urban, who makes for a sinister screen presence but gets very few scenes in which to show it off, and Lily Collins, who is a strong damsel in distress but hardly features, and Christopher Plummer, who makes for a convincing authority type but also gets precious little screen time. As for other cast members, Cam Gigandet offers competent but hardly outstanding support for Bettany while Alan Dale may as well not be in it all for the few scenes he gets. A brief appearance by genre veteran Brad Dourif, however, may well prove pleasing to some moviegoers.

The film’s failings don’t end here sadly. Anyone hoping that the good quality 3D conversion seen in Thor would also be evident in this film will be woefully disappointed by the quality of 3D on display here. For all the time they’ve had to do the job, the 3D conversion is extremely lacklustre – even the trailer released way back last year featured better 3D – being closer to last year’s efforts than to Thor. Part of the reason for this is probably because, upon seeing it, it becomes clear that this is not a film particularly well suited to 3D, with there really not being enough here to actually be enhanced by the extra dimension. The many dialogue based sequences obviously have nothing to gain from being presented with an extra dimension and the visuals are often such that even good 3D might not be particularly well noticed. 

The 3D is extremely inconsistent but very occasionally delivers and there are some very good instances of 3D, pieces of ash floating through the air in and around the futuristic walled city creating a good depth of field, scenes set around a ruined city feature some very clear depth and a scene of a vampire attack on a small desert town boasting some almost excellent 3D with ash flying through the air creating a distinct depth of field. Good 3D effects, however, are few and far between and overall the 3D is pointless and unremarkable, much of the time it being hard to tell that anything is even in 3D at all. Brightness is also a bit of an issue, the tint of the 3D glasses making scenes set in darkness a bit too dark. With all these criticisms, you might be wondering why I would even give the film three stars. Well, for all the flaws this is still is a very cool and quite enjoyable piece of popcorn cinema. 

While there isn’t a whole lot of true creative flair to be found here the production values are generally good, certainly much better than those of Legion even if the desert settings are still somewhat reminiscent of that film. The visuals are also rather cool and the CG effects are generally quite eye-popping, the futuristic walled city, while only appearing in a few scenes with the majority of the film taking place in the desert wastelands, being quite spectacular, the vampires being appropriately monstrous and menacing creations, the post apocalyptic wastelands being almost epic in their scale and the futuristic bikes that the characters drive around on being effortlessly cool. Essentially a futuristic sci-fi western, albeit one with 12A level violence, the film also delivers some action sequences that prove very entertaining, in particular the climactic action sequence involving a high speed train, really fast bikes and an army of vampires as well as a face to face confrontation between the protagonist and antagonist. 

Essentially, this is a film that certainly won’t offer anything for anyone looking for real substance but if you’re looking for a fun way to kill an hour and a half it will deliver the goods. So, better than Legion but not by a considerable amount, Priest is an amusing diversion but little more. So much more could clearly have been made of it and while the prospect of a sequel hinted at by the wide open ending shouldn’t fill anyone with dread I doubt anyone is going to be desperate to see it if it gets made.

Review by Robert Mann BA (Hons)

© BRWC 2010.

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Alton loves film. He is founder and Editor In Chief of BRWC.  Some of the films he loves are Rear Window, Superman 2, The Man With The Two Brains, Clockwise, Eternal Sunshine Of The Spotless Mind, Trading Places, Stir Crazy and Punch-Drunk Love.



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