Sunday, May 22, 2011


"Legion" director Scott Charles Steward and actor Paul Bettany have teamed up for sloppy seconds in the supernatural/horror/fantasy action chiller "Priest," with Karl Urban, Christopher Plummer, Maggie Q, and Brad Dourif. This grim $60 million cinematic adaptation of Korean author Min-Woo Hyung's graphic novel shares comparatively little in common with its multi-storied source material. The novel takes place in three settings: modern times, the Crusades, and the Wild West. Meanwhile, Steward's film confines itself to modern times. Nowhere in Hyung's graphic novel do vampires lurk so this Screen Gems' release departs radically with its choice of supernatural creatures. Interestingly, the graphic novel boasted zombies rather than vampires. What "Priest" does share is the off-beat and unusual mingling of the Western with supernatural horror and dark fantasy themes.

"Priest" (**½ out of ****) concerns a daring mission to rescue an innocent damsel-in-distress that bloodthirsty vampires have abducted. This far-fetched but interesting actioneer occurs in an alternate universe where mankind and vampires have been killing each other for centuries. The premise that Steward and freshman scribe Cory Goodman conjure up seems contradictory. This anonymous replica of Earth spawned vampires and the vampires proved so formidable an adversary that they defied flame-throwers, field artillery, and automatic weapons. Basically, these primeval creatures routed the best that modern science could forge to combat them. Mankind teetered on the brink of annihilation until the Church deployed the warrior monks. Although it doesn't dominate the elaborately-knit narrative, the heroes are comparable to martial arts warriors imbued with a religious ideology. In an interview, Steward compared the Priests to the Jedi Knights of the "Star Wars" franchise. The primary drawback to "Priest" is that Steward and Goodman never adequate develop the subhuman vampires. They merely provide a glimpse and rely entirely on dynamic CGI to make them look intimidating as opponents.

The “Priest” protagonist (Paul Bettany of “Legion”) belongs to an elite cadre of ninja-like warriors. These men and women dress like medieval monks in cassocks. They wear a cross tattooed on their foreheads and their noses. The Catholic Church commissioned them to destroy the vampires after all conventional military industrial methods failed. They saved society, but they were cast out when hostilities concluded and their services were no longer required. The enemy vampires aren't a romantic breed like the "Twilight" fangsters. Instead, they are a pasty-faced bunch of blind creatures, reminiscent those monsters in "Descent," that leap and lunge. Indeed, these mutants can tear a man in half. Often, Steward springs them out of nowhere for maximum fright effect. Some stand upright, but these shun evening clothes. However, they don’t turn men into vampires. The only one capable of this is the Queen Vampire; she is a creature, too. The vampires remain mankind’s mortal enemy, and sunlight is mankind’s best weapon.

The humans in “Priest” reside within dystopian cities enclosed in towering walls like a medieval castle. The cities inside resemble those in the seminal sci-fi thriller "Blade Runner," while the lands beyond the city look like something out of a Sergio Leone Spaghetti western. When the story unfolds, the vampires are all believed dead, and the autocratic Monsignor Orelas (Christopher Plummer of "Dracula 2000") has disbanded the priest units for fear they might turn against them. The Catholic Church rules this amoral world and maintains that all vampires have been destroyed. Our eponymous hero suspects this may not be entirely true and discovers first-hand not all the vampires were killed. He is haunted by an episode from the war when he lost a comrade (Karl Urban of "Red") during an attack on a vampire hive. After Monsignor Orelas dismisses him, our hero learns that his brother’s 18-year old daughter, Lucy (Lily Collins of "The Blind Side"), has been kidnapped when vampires raided her house and slaughtered her parents. This scene evokes the vintage John Ford western "The Searchers." Monsignor Orelas refuses to endorse our hero’s mission because it would make the Church appear flawed. Orelas sends out four priests to arrest the protagonist. A local lawman (Cam Gigandet of "Easy A") accompanies the Priest on the search because he loves Lily. Meanwhile, three of the priests who served with our hero are killed by a mysterious vampire who calls himself ‘Black Hat.’

Essentially, "Priest" qualifies as an entertaining pastiche of far better films. In fact, Steward has acknowledged his debt to the John Wayne classic "The Searchers." For the most part, Steward does a splendid job of recycling surefire elements from those films and inserting them in his own movie. Comparisons between “Priest” and the “Underworld” franchise are inevitable. The movie poster has Paul Bettany perched high up on a ledge just as Kate Beckinsale was in “Underworld.“ These two heroes are warriors who have taken a vow to destroy their enemies. They work for a dictatorial boss who serves as their father. Despite its appalling dearth of originality, this polished supernatural horror epic looks terrific. “Forrest Gump” lenser Don Burgess makes “Priest” appear like a cross-between of a Spaghetti western and the “Mad Max” movies. Burgess maximizes the grit in the rugged, dusty, and dirty ‘wastelands’ scenes, while he delivers a film noir like look to the cityscapes. “Priest” has all the trappings of an art-house epic. The use of 3-D adds little to the action, particularly since "Priest" had been converted to 3-D rather than lensed in the process. The settings are pretty creepy, especially the portal toilet like confessionals that armed guards patrol. The CGI-vampires make an intimidating adversary because they strike so swiftly without quarter. Happily, the cast maintains a straight-face in spite of these incredible, larger-than-life shenanigans. The producers were undoubtedly hoping to milk the material for a sequel since the ending leaves things wide open for something else. No, “Priest” isn’t as good as the earlier Steward & Bettany campy opus “Legion.” Nothing that happens in the above-average “Priest” can top the gnarly old lady crawling on the ceiling like a human fly.

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