When I first heard about Priest I immediately pictured a studio exec blissfully diving into a paddling pool full of money wearing a kid’s Dracula costume. He’d just jumped on the back of the vampire cash cow, proceeding to ride it like a gleeful, greedy child, pausing only to suck the beast dry of all nutrients and energy, leaving the metaphorical genre cow barren of milk and ready to be put out to pasture.
To briefly set up the whole concept of the film, and thus the world of the graphic novel it has adapted, director Scott Charles-Stewart races through a couple prologues. Firstly we encounter a band of Priests, the cross-tattoo-faced Jedi, as they are walking into a hive. Priest (Bettany), as he shall uncomfortably be known from here on out, leads the group into a swarm of vampires, who here look like a toothy extrapolation from the creatures in I Am Legend. Amidst the fight Karl Urban’s priest falls from Bettany’s clutches into the heart of the hive.
Immediately following is a rather jarring, but nonetheless sumptuous, little animated sequence à la The Deathly Hallows. Here we are told that the world is ruled by the church, which has protected man for centuries from the vampire menace. The priests, once talented and deadly warriors who battled the vampires through a terrible war, are now dejected, useless and poorly integrated back into society.
When Priest’s niece is taken by a vamp clan out in one of the hick towns outside the city walls he must go against his church to go in search of her and get to the bottom of the newly rejuvenated vamp issue, joined by the young ingénue Sheriff, aptly named Hicks (Gigandet).
The relationship between these two characters is kind of fun, if not a little tired. Bettany’s Priest is a rather serious bastard with a voice rivalling Batman’s for over-the-top-ness. He must reluctantly train Hicks as they go along, occasionally spouting ridiculous advice like “there are always two points: A and B. Know them both and you can kill vampires.” Ok… It’s genuinely quite hard to watch Bettany portray such a hardened, deep-throated, American-accented assassin. He’s the guy from Wimbledon for God’s sake. It’s not right that the fairly normal Hicks is more of a presence on screen than the priest himself.
Furthermore, the script doesn’t help you to enjoy these characters. Feeling like it was bashed out in a studio-exec’s office, aiming to be released before the vampire fad evaporates, it rushes through the character’s actions so quickly that we can’t garner any kind of empathy for anyone of them. The action at times, however, borders on exhilarating and is unabashedly ridiculous (which is what we want from this kind of film) even if the big finale did remind me of both The Matrix Reloaded and, believe or not, the beginning to Toy Story 3.
So you can understand what Charles-Stewart and writer Cory Goodman are trying to do in Priest. Or, at least, what the people behind the graphic novel series are trying to do. They’re taking a staple genre and transplanting it into a kind of new environment, adding a nice little post-apocalyptic feel to it, which we all love. There might even be a quasi-atheist, individualist message to the whole affair, Priest and his sexy lady priest friend who tries to help him choosing to go against their world’s motto of “to go against the church is to go against God”. But for all its pretence of originality and pomp, Priest fails to be anything but a poorly scripted amalgamation of everything we’ve ever known about vampires, but with the most laboured and down-right pants conceits holding it all together.
Just don’t go to Priest expecting much. I can only imagine fans of the novels will be disappointed also, unless that too is rather poor, but then that begs the question why the Dracula cape wearing studio-exec bothered to adapt it at all. Oh what does he care? He’s splashing around in his paddling pool.