Not exactly an unholy mess, but still a rather too pious retread of classic sci-fi/action/horror riffs that lacks originality or pizzazz, “Priest” won’t strike much awe in anyone. Paul Bettany, channeling Clint Eastwood’s Man With No Name, stars as vampire-slaying man of the cloth who goes rogue in a Steampunk-style parallel world to save a family member in peril. The use of 3D — applied in post, rather than shot on stereoscopic cameras – reps a major selling point, but in a market still crowded with such fare, that’s not saying much. Pic opened reasonably wide in Blighty on May 6.
Based on the same-named graphic novel by Hyung Min-woo, the script by Cory Goodman posits a world where human beings and vampires — the slimy, bestial, non-talking kind — have been at war for centuries. The bloodsuckers were supposedly vanquished in the recent past by an order of martial-arts-skilled priests who are under the strict control, like everyone else, of a quasi-fascist version of the Catholic Church. Still, the human race plays it safe by dwelling mostly in the confines of walled cities that would recall “Blade Runner” if they weren’t so drained of color. One former vamp-hunting cleric (Bettany), known only as “priest” throughout, struggles to fit into a society where his butt-kicking skills are no longer much needed.
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In a desolate plain somewhere beyond the cities, the homestead of Owen Pace (Stephen Moyer) is suddenly attacked by a huge hoard of vampires who kill his wife (Madchen Amick) and kidnap his 18-year-old daughter, Lucy (Lily Collins). Lucy’s sweetheart, local sheriff Hicks (Cam Gigandet), asks the priest to help him rescue Lucy, knowing that she was in fact the priest’s niece. The church, as repped by Monsignor Orelas (Christopher Plummer), forbids him to help Hicks because to admit there are still vampires about would be an act of heresy. The priest defies him and sets out with Hicks to track Lucy down, necessitating travel on some cool-looking elongated motorcycles across the dry Southern California lakebeds used partly as locations here.
Orelas sends an envoy of four other priests to hunt down our hero, but one priestess (Maggie Q) breaks away to find the priest and warn him. It transpires that Lucy has been kidnapped by the priest and priestess’ former colleague (Karl Urban), who has been turned into the first of an entirely new species of human-vampire hybrid.
In the hands of visual-effects maven-turned-helmer Scott Stewart (whose debut, “Legion,” also starred Bettany), “Priest” rattles along briskly enough to make for a diverting, blessedly short 87-minute running time. Pic manages to blend many disparate looks and genres, from oaters via the “Mad Max” pics to 1968’s “Witchfinder General,” yet still feels oddly anonymous; the most striking sequence is an animated prologue that skillfully marries the aesthetics of graphic novels and 3D spatial construction.
Given the limitations imposed by the banal dialogue, the actors comport themselves with dignity, with Bettany once again showing credible chops as an action man, although his priestly garb and tortured spiritual intensity rather confusingly evokes his villain from “The Da Vinci Code.” Q tries to bring an air of vulnerability to a part that mostly calls for her to swing a lethal-looking fishing line around and plant bombs. Pin-up Gigandet and heavy-for-hire Urban are no better than serviceable. At least some of the supporting players, particularly Brad Dourif as a snake-oil salesman and Christopher Plummer, are lit just right to bring out the mischievous glints in their eyes.
Unsurprisingly, given Stewart’s background, visual effects rep the tech credits’ strongest suit. The mostly CGI vampires integrate seamlessly with the real-world players, and are more strikingly designed than other elements, with one beastie recalling a figure from Francis Bacon. Sound design, credited to Martin Jacob Lopez and Jussi Tegelman, is also aces.