Directed by: Scott Charles Stewart
Starring: Paul Bettany, Karl Urban, Cam Gigandet, Maggie Q, Lily Collins
Rated: PG-13 for intense sequences of violence and action, disturbing images and brief strong language.
“Priest” has an awful lot in common with 2009’s “Legion” — starting with their director and star, and ending with the way they take a bunch of familiar tropes and mash them together. “Legion” crossed zombies and angels; “Priest” does it with vampires and the Westerns. Neither is a great film, but they’re enjoyable if you’re just looking for some entertainment.
In an alternate version of our world, a great war between humans and vampires has recently ended. Humanity is confined to walled cities while the few surviving vampires are confined to reservations. Some people are settling out in the open wasteland, trying to restore enough fertility to the ground to grow food again. The Church controls the cities, having created the warrior class who were able to defeat the vampires: Priests. Gifted fighters, the Priests sport cross tattoos on their faces and apparently lack the ability to smile. Not that you can blame them — after the war, the Church disbanded their Order and confined them, forbidding them to gather together, dooming them to nights of PTSD-riddled nightmares and days of drudgery at menial jobs.
The hero of “Priest” (Paul Bettany) has no name, in the grand Western tradition, and neither does the villain, who is credited as “Black Hat” (Karl Urban). When Black Hat and a small group of vampires abduct the Priest’s niece, Lily, he asks permission to go rescue her. The Monsignor (Christopher Plummer) refuses, ordering him to remember his vows and remain in his assigned place. The Priest rebels, and sets out into the Wasteland for his brother’s farmstead. A Priestess (Maggie Q) and three other Priests are sent after him. The Priest teams up with Hicks, the local sheriff and his niece’s sweetheart, and starts tracking the vampires who took the girl.
Although “Priest” has a legion of vampires, it’s a Western at heart. There’s lots of talking, often about what the Priest and Hicks will do if they find Lily and she’s been infected by the vampires (the Priest keeps calmly saying he will kill her, and Hicks keeps trying to make his determination to prevent that believable). A lot is left unsaid, too, especially once the Priestess shows up and the two former comrades-in-arms are finally able to catch up. A train figures importantly into the grand finale.
Yes, this is a very predictable film — but you don’t go to see “The Nutcracker” at Christmas to be surprised by the ending, and you don’t go see a movie like “Priest” to be surprised, either. You go see it for the jump-scares, the gunfights, and the pleasantly cheesy dialog, and to root for a stone-cold, grizzled, grumpy killer. Bettany is a bit young for the grizzled part yet, but he plays the Priest as if the man has been alive for a hundred years, and it works. “Priest” goes through its paces solidly, the acting is fine, and the effects are excellent.
As a long time connoisseur of vampire flicks, I found the take “Priest” offers interesting: they are a whole separate species, and humans who are infected become servants rather than full-on vampires themselves. The vampires have a hive society, complete with drones and queens and hive guardians, and although they appear to be able to communicate just fine, they aren’t understandable by uninfected humans.
“Priest” isn’t groundbreaking or mind-bogglingly excellent, it’s a workmanlike, entertaining vampire western. Whether you enjoy it or not will depend on whether you think mixing the two genres sounds awesome or stupid, and whether you enjoy cheesy dialog and movies that take themselves a little more seriously than their content warrants.