Moviegoers weary of vampires and their stubborn foothold on the pop culture landscape might be heartened to know that the vampires in ‘Priest’, Scott Stewart's adaptation of the popular TokyoPop comic, bear little resemblance to the angst-ridden and emotionally complex bloodsuckers of ‘Twilight’ and ‘True Blood’.
Forget angst; these mindless, feral creatures don't even have eyes – just claws, fangs, superhuman agility and an unquenchable thirst for human blood. There is something to be said for keeping things simple.
Indeed, simplicity is a guiding principle in ‘Priest’. The story – a futuristic western about a warrior monk (Paul Bettany) who emerges from exile to rescue his niece from the clutches of a vampire colony – barely clocked in at 80 minutes, according to my watch (the official running time is charitably pegged at 87 minutes).
That leaves little room for complicating matters with subplots or character development – the absence of the latter being something of a blessing in disguise, I suspect, given the limitations of some of its cast members.
Bettany's strategy for action-hero success is similarly uncomplicated. His Priest is sort of a monastic Clint Eastwood, never smiling, his every word full of grim portent, rarely rising above a whisper as he schools his gunslinger sidekick Hicks (Screen Gems indentured servant Cam Gigandet) in the ways of vampire slaying.
And Priest (we never know his real name, in true western fashion) is one hell of a slayer, eviscerating his adversaries with cross-shaped daggers, cross-shaped ninja stars, and various other iconographic weapons that drive home the film's religious allegory with a determined B-movie bluntness (Priest is simple, but never subtle).
For all the effort spared on the story, no lack of it is evident in the film's impressive production design and CGI work.
Stewart, who made his name as a visual effects wizard before moving into directing, imbues Priest's dystopian metropolis with a blue-filtered, monochromatic, hyper-Blade Runner aesthetic, while his vampiric creatures take cues from the menaces of ‘Alien’ and ‘I Am Legend’.
The action scenes exploit every conceivable loophole in the MPAA's PG-13 guidelines, which seemingly allow for all matter of violence and gore, so long as it's not inflicted upon real-live humans. Near-humans are exempt, as are the character in the film's animated prologue, a splatter-drenched sequence replete with severed heads and torsos. Expect Priest to renew the debate over flaws in the movie-rating system – and rightly so.
‘Priest’ is a surprisingly effective piece of genre filmmaking, lively and scary, littered with flaws but none so glaring as to sink the film as a whole.
For all his one-dimensional stoicism, Bettany proves to be an able and engaging anti-hero. Hopefully, in the sequel, they'll let him have a smile or two.
Star Rating: 3