Vampire Weakened

Priest, written by Cory Goodman, based on the graphic novel series by Min-Woo Hyung, directed by Scott Charles Stewart; starring Paul Bettany (Priest), Karl Urban (Black Hat), Cam Gigandet (Hicks), Maggie Q (Priestess), Brad Dourif (Salesman) and Christopher Plummer (Monsignor Orelas) (2011): If the writing on this movie were a lot better or a lot worse, it could be pretty interesting. However, all dialogue was written by the Dialogamatic 3000, which means that you won’t actually hear a line of dialogue you haven’t heard a hundred times before in other movies. That’s an impressive feat of dialogue writing for a movie set in an alternate, steam-punky universe in which super-powered Catholic priests fight a species of eyeless vampires that look like the reimagined Pig-monster from the rebooted Doom video-game franchise.

I’m assuming Paul Bettany, Karl Urban, and Christopher Plummer all had bills to pay. They all do what they can with this amazingly derivative piece of junk, which is not much. Movies this movie rips off for plot, characterization, visuals, set design, and monsters include (but are not limited to!) The Searchers, The Matrix series, Clint Eastwood’s Man With No Name trilogy, Blade Runner, The Road Warrior, the Alien movies, Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon, and pretty much the entire steampunk genre.

In what must be an alternate universe, thousands of years of war between humanity and vampires (which are not, I repeat, not human, and not derived from humans, a fact the movie doesn’t really establish fully until there are only ten minutes left) are seemingly over. The remaining vampires are on reservations, which must have been a hell of a relocation effort given that at no time are the vampires shown as being able to reason, much less talk.

They are afraid of the sun, however, which is a good thing given that they don’t have eyes, meaning that they know the sun’s there when their skin starts burning. These vampires really are nature’s cruelest mistake. Move over, Bottomless Pete!

The super-powered ninja Catholic Priests who won the Great Vampire War have been decommissioned and given menial jobs, because when you have superpowered people around, it’s always a good idea to piss them off by having them clean toilets and shovel coal. The church hierarchy now denies there’s any vampire problem. Pretty much everybody lives in walled, smoke-filled cities, though there are settlements out on the endless desert that surrounds these cities. The citizens in the cities all dress like urchins from a road company production of Oliver. They have invented the elevator, the television, and the computer, but not soap or fashion.

Oh ho! Vampires kidnap the Paul Bettany Priest character’s niece (the only name he gets is Priest, which is really a title, isn’t it?) and kill his brother and sister-in-law. Like John Wayne in The Searchers, off he goes. The Church doesn’t want him to go, but he goes anyway. Because that’s what a man does when vampires kidnap his niece.

He knows it’s a trap because otherwise the vampires would have just eaten his niece, but he goes anyway. The Church recommissions four other priests to follow him and stop him. He teams up with a young sheriff to hunt the vampires. The vampires, meanwhile, are all riding around on a train headed straight for one of the cities. Or maybe The City.

Yes, the villains are all riding around on a train. This makes for a pretty linear chase narrative, as there appears to be only one train line in the whole world. If this civilization had radios, cellphones or even telegraphs, the movie could end around the 45-minute mark. However, this does not appear to be the case.

While the city (or The City) is a smoky Blade Runner industrial dystopia, the country appears to be the 1850 Old West with motorbikes instead of horses, but otherwise invested in oldey timey clothes and phonographs and 19th-century cotton dresses. I would love to know how history ended up here, but I’m not sure the writers of either the movie or the comic book know the answer to that any more than I do.

Priest instead really seems more like an intentional mash-up of visual styles without any attendant brainpower devoted to figuring out how such visuals could ever have occurred. One shot shows the keen intellect at work here. After Priest intones portentously that there’s no sun in the city any more, we see a shot of the city as seen on the horizon. It’s no wonder that the city has a smog and smoke problem because its designers didn’t invent an industrial district — instead, there appears to be a gigantic smokestack looming over ever city block. And you thought your city was badly planned!

Much chasing of the train ensues on the solar-powered motorbikes everyone seems to ride when they’re not riding the train, cars also apparently not having been invented. Also, I can’t think of a better vehicle to ride across a rock-strewn wasteland than a motorbike travelling at 300 miles per hour. Can you? Karl Urban shows up, looking pretty much exactly like Clint Eastwood in A Fistful of Dollars. Much CGI ensues.

I didn’t NOT enjoy Priest. Like Terminator Salvation but at one-tenth the budget, it offers a rich array of swipes, steals and homages to mull over. Okay, laugh over. Paul Bettany struggles manfully to invest his ill-written role with something remotely actorly — with this and his role in the equally bad and derivative Legion, Bettany is threatening to become the Peter Weller of the 21st century. We know that, like Weller, Bettany can act. But we don’t want to see him acting in movies like Priest or Legion (or in Weller’s case, Screamers and Shakedown. Note how all these movies have one-word titles?).

Christopher Plummer does his old hambone in a bad movie routine, and Karl Urban does about what he can with a character who doesn’t even have a proper name or in lieu of that, a title. He’s Black Hat. Brad Dourif is Salesman! Maggie Q is Priestess! And Priest is Movie! Paradoxically recommended.

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