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Dustin Putman

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Priest  (2011)
Directed by Scott Stewart.
Cast: Paul Bettany, Cam Gigandet, Maggie Q, Karl Urban, Lily Collins, Stephen Moyer, Christopher Plummer, Brad Dourif, Alan Dale, Madchen Amick.
2011 – 87 minutes
Rated: Rated PG-13 (for violence, disturbing images and brief strong language).
Reviewed by Dustin Putman, May 13, 2011.
Based on the Korean comic by Min-woo Hyung, "Priest" has gone through a long process of scheduled—and then postponed—release dates, going all the way back to August 2010. Word on the street is that the extra time was afforded the film when Screen Gems and director Scott Stewart (2010's "Legion") decided to post-convert it into 3-D for theatrical distribution. This process is never a good idea, smelling of desperation and greed over creative dignity. Sure enough, it turns a poorly made, rotely scripted, haphazardly truncated turkey into an ugly-looking, poorly made, rotely scripted, haphazardly truncated turkey. 3-D is supposed to add spatiality to its images, so says the format's deluded supporters, but it does the exact opposite in "Priest." Besides being unnecessary and wholly ineffective, it drains what little color and spark there might have been from the picture and renders the scope of the landscapes curiously narrow and claustrophobic. Simply put, it's an insult to be forced to see movies this way when theaters don't offer a 2-D option. Why are studios spending millions extra on subpar transfers? Why must audiences have to pay premium prices north of fifteen bucks a pop to watch something that equates to a film being shown on a projector with a bulb burned out—while the viewer wears sunglasses? Don't—I repeat, don't—see "Priest" this way. Better yet, don't see it at all.

In a world that has been destroyed by the ongoing battle between humans and vampires, the church presides over walled-in cities built to keep out the riffraff. At one time, priests were trained in combat to protect the people, but the clergy has since disbanded these groups and allowed them to slip into obscurity. When 18-year-old niece Lucy (Lily Collins) is kidnapped and her parents (Stephen Moyer, Madchen Amick) are killed by a vamp pack, one such man of the cloth, known only as Priest (Paul Bettany), defies the clergy's opposition and goes rogue, setting out with Lucy's paramour, Sheriff Hicks (Cam Gigandet), to save her. Not far behind are four of Priest's saintly colleagues, ordered to bring him back dead or alive. One of them, a woman imaginatively billed as Priestess (Maggie Q), arrives just in time to warn Priest and help him in his fight against Lucy's bloodsucking captors.

"Priest" is so dispassionate and just plain shoddily made that it leaves one scratching their head over how director Scott Stewart could have gotten the job. He shows no understanding of rhythm, pacing and the building of tension while signifying that he also has no interest in his own story. The barebones, empty-souled screenplay by first-timer Cory Goodman is of no help, nor is the PG-13 rating that constantly and blatantly keeps censoring the material. Inspiration of any kind, in fact, is in dangerously short supply, the shots of the futuristic Cathedral City reminding of 1982's "Blade Runner," minus the grandeur and spectacle. A prologue showing Priest's gone-awry experience in a vampire hive prior to his work being shut down is disastrously edited and anticlimactic, cobbled down to just a few quick shots from filmmakers who don't appear to care or be trying. "Priest" has no time to linger and drink in the settings, characters and set-pieces, its 87-minute running time rushed like a grumpy, jaded businessman late for his flight.

Paul Bettany (2010's "The Tourist") ought to steer clear of director Scott Stewart from now on—they previously worked together on "Legion"—lest he gets typecast as a B-movie actor with the emoting skills of a frozen-faced Botox victim. Bettany mopes his way through the picture and shows nary a sign that he's enjoying himself whatsoever. Though a human, his character of Priest somehow acquires without explanation the skills of floating on air and literally defying gravity midway through the film. His co-stars, from Cam Gigandet (2011's "The Roommate") as the stubborn Hicks, to Maggie Q (2007's "Live Free or Die Hard") as the loyal Priestess, to Lily Collins (2009's "The Blind Side") as the imperiled Lucy, are left hopelessly stranded. Karl Urban (2010's "Red") exudes a cool, intense look as main baddie Top Hat, but hasn't a chance to grow beyond his physical conception. Finally, genre vet Brad Dourif (2009's "Halloween II") is notable playing a crooked salesman solely for a scene where his car's headlights are shot out. When a post-apocalyptic horror flick is so uninteresting that the viewer's mind goes directly to wondering if this dystopic vision of the world has auto repair shops, you know you're in trouble.

"To go against the church is to go against God," about three or four different people laughably tell the stoic hero in the first fifteen minutes alone. In the clergy's attempts to shoot down and repress the priest when he goes against their rules to rescue his niece, they symbolize the self-righteous elitism of certain organized religions. It's a potentially potent message, but it is minimally explored here. What we get instead are dead-eyed, humorless, one-note ciphers vs. pointy-toothed albinos; relationships that are erratic and carry no heft (e.g., Priest and Hicks, Priest and Priestess, Priest and Lily); dopey, bland attempts at jump scares so predictable you can set your watch to them, and action scenes that are forgettable even as they play out. Two shots show promise, one involving the shadow of a vampire climbing down into a cellar and the other selfishly offering up a single glimpse at the queen vampire, a ghoulish creation far creepier than any of the other CGI creatures and actors wearing funky contact lenses who make up the villain quotient. Naturally, it's never to be seen again. "Priest" is like that, though, constantly seeming to go for the opposite of what it should be striving for. The film is horror, sci-fi, western, and adventure, and it very nearly couldn't be any more bland and murky than it already is. "Priest" is an irritating, lifeless experience, so bad it sucks the fun right out of moviegoing.
© 2011 by Dustin Putman
Dustin Putman