Just like animation directors do not necessarily make for successful live action directors (see JONAH HEX and JOHN CARTER), a visual effects artist also does not necessarily make for a successful live action director and/or storyteller. I have never met director Scott Stewart, but I am willing to bet that Screen Gems chose him to helm LEGION, his first film, based on his visual effects background. After all, if you can create CG effects, then you must be able to craft a movie, right? LEGION was enough of a success (thanks to people who will buy a movie ticket so long as the film has explosions and pretty pictures) that Screen Gems hired Stewart to direct PRIEST. My experience with visual effects artists (not all, but most) is that despite their immense talents in bringing the director’s vision to the screen, when it comes to their own ideas, the result is a regurgitation of all the sci-fi and fantasy films they’ve either worked on or have seen recently. PRIEST is the perfect example of a film that is constructed together with parts of many other films (BLADE RUNNER, ALIENS, MAD MAX, THE MATRIX, and DARK CITY). Whatever originality its Korean comic book source may have had, the film seems to contain none of it. PRIEST is either a lazy effort to quickly finish a movie and get it out into theaters using whatever tried and true elements that can be fitted into the story OR the director simply lacked the talent to create something original and wonderful. I opt for the latter.

PRIEST is based on a Korean comic book of the same name. It’s described as a “post-apocalyptic dystopia science fiction action film.” The world is divided between two races: humans and vampires. These two races have been at war for apparently centuries, in the process laying waste to the world. The humans are led by the Catholic Church, which forms a highly-trained group of warriors called Priests. The Priests eventually defeat the vampire hordes and whatever remaining vampires exist are gathered up and thrown into internment camps. The humans, meanwhile, live within completely enclosed cities that closely resemble Blade Runner and that are run by the Catholic Church. The Priests are disbanded, but they have no place in post-war society. Their warrior skills are non-transferable and, consequently, they are treated as pariahs. The main protagonist is one of those Priests (Paul Bettany). One day he is visited by a sheriff of a small outpost town outside the city walls. The sheriff informs Priest that his brother and his family were attacked by vampires and that his brother’s girl has been kidnapped. Breaking the Church’s orders, Priest leaves the city and seeks to find the girl. The main baddie is, you guessed it, a vampire who is played by Karl Urban. Maggie Q also stars as another Priest who teams up with Priest.

Usually you know you’re in for a bad movie experience when you see the Screen Gems studio logo (the studio behind the RESIDEN EVIL series). Add to that the fact that by now we have all lost count of how many vampire films and TV shows have been released over the past 10 to 15 years. Telling yet another vampire story isn’t just beating a dead horse, but its literally blowtorching the fucker into ashes. However, if you’re going to defy audiences’ wishes to NOT make a vampire movie by making one, then you should either stick with classic, Victorian-era conceptualizations or contribute to the lore by bringing us something that is original, cool and yet still maintains some semblance to what has been done before. What you should not do is copy the ridiculously retarded version created for I AM LEGEND. Whoever decided that it would be cool to have vampires look like bald, naked aliens with gaping mouths should absolutely never work in concept design or visual effects like ever again. These are not vampires. They are what a blind person who has never seen a vampire movie nor read a vampire book would conceive if you gave them a paper and pencil.

Paul Bettany cannot be blamed for anything he does badly in PRIEST, which is everything. He’s given us some good performances in the past (e.g. A KNIGHT’S TALE, A BEAUTIFUL MIND, and MASTER AND COMMANDER) so I know he’s clearly capable of pulling off much better efforts than what you see in PRIEST. The fault really lies in the weak character development and the horrendous dialogue he’s made to recite. His character is obviously modeled after John Wayne, but imagine John Wayne doing gritty and serious without absolutely any charm or even a slight hint of humor. Wayne actually did play such characters, but at least he had the backing of visionary directors like John Ford and the appeal of John Wayne wasn’t just his acting style. It was the entire package. It was his look, swagger, style, and the iconic imagery he attained over decades of playing in genre-defining films. Then we have Paul Bettany, who is a limp dick, pale shadow of John Wayne in comparison. For one, we have zero confidence in his ability to lead when we see him fuck up a mission during the very beginning of the movie. One of his priests remarks how the vampire “hive” they are inside of looks like a grave and that they should perhaps get the hell out before the vampires come after them. Bettany ignores the priest and orders his team to descend to their doom.

There are also two small further annoyances with the main character. First, can we please no longer have dudes in movies who wear hoods have them take them off during moments of badassery? I understand Darth Maul brought that move into vogue in STAR WARS, but that was back in 1999 and I think we can move on now and find something else that’s cool. Second, if the war supposedly took place a long time ago (I deduced this from the fact that the sheriff tells Priest that he wasn’t around for the war as in he wasn’t born yet), then why does Priest barely look older than the sheriff?

After the vampires have been defeated and the Priests are living the lives of pariahs inside their cities, Bettany’s post-war life is shown to be like that of any cinema war veteran. He lives alone and suffers post-traumatic war dreams all day long. That’s one cliché. Another is that Bettany was the best of the Priests in terms of skill and talent. Of course he was. That right there eliminates a potentially great dramatic stake that could have elevated the film. Instead of making Priest the best at what he does (and potentially invincible against most enemies), why not make him just a moderately skilled, yet noble Priest? It would have automatically raised the odds he would have faced against the vampires and raised the film’s tension.

Another issue I had with Bettany’s Priest and the setup of the narrative was that it only took 17 minutes for the narrative setup to be established, to have Bettany break his priestly vows to the church, and embark on finding his niece. I’m not sure if the studio insisted on maintaining a brisk running time for PRIEST (at a short 1 hour 27 minutes) or if the director was afraid to spend more time in letting his story unfold and allow the audience to get into the characters and the world the director had built. Whatever the reason, the setup should have been longer. More of Bettany’s conflict between his vows to the church and his loyalty to his niece should have been shown. We should have seen more of what his life after the war was like so that when he finally decides to break out of the city to search for his niece, that decision is momentous and impactful.

At least Paul Bettany can act. The same cannot be said of Cam Gigandet, who plays the sheriff who first notifies Priest that his niece has been seized by vampires. For one, it was a poor casting decision to cast Gigandet as the sheriff. The “actor” has the look of a Abercrombie model, which isn’t what I would have envisioned the sheriff of a rugged, desolate, post-apocalyptic frontier town to look like. Worse, Gigandet doesn’t help himself any by making us wince at every line that comes out of his mouth. Again, like with Bettany, Gigandet is also saddled with flat characterization and bad dialogue. You get to hear shitty, clichéd lines such as, “Point A. Meet Point fucking B” and “Are you teaching me to shoot? I’m teaching you how to kill vampires.”

As for the villains, like I stated earlier, the vampires are poorly designed both conceptually and in terms of how they are portrayed in the film. The vampires were obviously not composited nor lit well as is apparent from the CG-ness of the characters. Moreover, the vampires, including Karl Urban as the main baddie, are purely evil for the sake of being evil. The vampires do not speak and no motivation or intent is shown for the vampires. They’re like the monsters you shoot up in a first person shooter video game. They are out to destroy you for no given reason. One would think that at least Karl Urban would be a little further developed, but no. The only thing that makes him memorable is the cowboy outfit he wears with the long duster. Other than one cheesy line (“If you’re not committing sin, you’re not having fun”), he is as one dimensional as the vampires he leads.

So apparently, any thought that may have gone into the world building in PRIEST was entirely absent during pre-production and production. For example, the cities are so futuristic and modern while the outside frontier towns still exist in the 1800s. Why would there be such a huge discrepancy? It’s a cool stylistic contrast, but you can’t just throw that shit in there without explaining why the contrast exists. For example, there is an old-fashioned train depot in one scene. That depot is located in a town where electricity doesn’t even exist. Why would anyone choose to live in a town like this when they can enjoy the comfort of far more advanced technology? I suspect the reason is that these frontier people are like hippies or post-apocalyptic hipsters who shun the idea of living under the thumb of the Catholic Church. That’s fine, but no one explains this or confirms this to be the case. Finally, if the frontier towns don’t believe in God, then why do they have cemeteries and perform Christian burials for their dead like we see in the movie? It would have been interesting to see why these towns decided to leave the Church, but we don’t get that either.

Despite the obvious heavy-handed homage to George Orwell’s 1984, I liked the idea of having the Catholic Church be this theocratic governmental power that rules its people through the fear of God. It presented a lot of potential to be explored in the story that unfortunately is barely tapped. However, what remains unexplained is why the Priests are shunned by society. In the beginning of the film, it is explained that after the war, the Priests no longer had a place in a peaceful world and so they were essentially discarded by society. This theme has been explored in samurai stories, but I just couldn’t buy it for this story. Here, the human race was getting decimated by the vampires and it was the Priests who saved their race from defeat. Wouldn’t they be accorded more respect and dignity from the church? Especially a church that has a history of placing its heroes on pedestals and canonizing them into saints? It makes even less sense that the council refused to believe Priest when he told them that the vampires had returned and had kidnapped his niece. Considering how well respected he is for his past accomplishments, why would they not believe him?

I may be criticizing PRIEST a little too unfairly. After all, anyone who drove to a theater and bought a ticket to see this movie was unlikely to have been looking for a deep storyline with fully realized characters. The few dozen people who saw this in a theater were more concerned about seeing some ass kicking and explosions. That’s fair enough. However, the director couldn’t even pull this off. The fight choreography is laughable at best. Part CROUCHING TIGER, HIDDEN DRAGON (i.e. there is a scene where Maggie Q throws up two stones in the air for Priest to walk across on his way to defeat a giant vampire) and part THE MATRIX, the fight scenes are comprised of a poor mishmash of borrowed clips from other films. The climax involves a fight atop a moving train between Karl Urban and Priest. Its not even stylistically cool. It simply apes the same shit we saw in THE MATRIX, but (if this is even possible) in a way that makes the cool fights we saw in THE MATRIX look very bad here.

Clearly, I have very few nice things to say about PRIEST, but there is one. The film score by Christopher Young is excellent. It’s a beautifully composed piece that should have been reserved for a film worthy of Young’s effort. I enjoyed the score enough to sit through the entire end credits just to listen to it.

PRIEST had a promising premise that, with more time and better talents behind it, could have been something spectacular. Maybe. I appreciated the director’s homage to the aforementioned science fiction films and John Ford’s THE SEARCHERS, but instead of using these films as inspiration to build upon, he blatantly copies them. I don’t think this is a demonstration of laziness because I find it hard to believe that a director would sabotage his career in such manner by not trying hard enough to pull off a successful film. I think the problem here was that, the director simply lacked the talents to tell a good story.

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