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Priest Poster

In an alternate reality Earth humans have battled vampires since the beginning of time. Humans, driven to the brink of extinction created a group of vampire-killing warriors called 'Priests' who eventually vanquished the vampires to Indian-like reservations. The wars between the two races has left the Earth a devastated wasteland. What remains of humanity lives on a dystopic mega-city ruled by the Church. The monsignors of the Church have disbanded the Priests and tried (unsuccessfully) to reintegrate them into society. Each Priest is marked with a telltale crucifix tattoo, and they're treated like Vietnam vets. That is, poorly. One priest (named 'Priest' -- played by Paul Bettany) forsakes his oath when he is forbidden from investigating the disapperance of his niece by a resurgent vampire threat.

Priest is a compelling mix of multiple genres. It resembles the Judge Dredd franchise most of all, what with its dystopian megacity, and a hero who embodies a government official with greatly enhanced powers. The latter movie was more tongue-in-cheek, but Priest is dead serious. The few humans who live outside the megacities live in Wild West style homes. There are railroads and snakeoil salesmen, and it fits with Bettany's portrayal of Priest as a squinty-eyed, deeply wrinkled warrior. He channels Eastwood's 'Man With No Name' rather well here, as Priest feels more like an incarnation of a job, or a function than an ordinary man.

The megacity is a study of dystopia that's eerily reminiscent of both Equilibrium and Bladerunner; the city is massive, blanketed in floating flakes of ash and dust. The entire culture is dominated by religious messages and icons, and the producers throw in a nice touch when Bettany's priest enters a state-mandated confessional booth in which he explains his problems to a video screen priest. He waits to receive a computer-determined penance with his name inserted like a cheap form letter.

When Priest learns that his niece has been kidnapped by vampires (which shouldn't be possible) he requests that he be reinstated as a functioning priest so that he can investigate. Predictably, the ruling monsignors forbid him from acting on his own, despite his long service to the Church. He breaks his vows, and hops on his super-powered motorbike, squinting into the wind, and hitting the 'TURBO' button and moving past two hundred miles per hour. He races across the cracked salt flats of the wasteland. Cool, huh?

The action sequences are sadly reminiscent of The Matrix films; heavy on slow motion, and sometimes the sequences take unbelievably ridiculous turns -- the standout stupidest sequence involves the protagonist rushing headlong at a vampire while his fellow priest (played by Maggie Q) throws rocks into the air and he uses them as stepping stones -- in mid-air.

I don't mind action sequences that bend the rules of physics, but this action didn't make any physical sense whatsoever. Ignoring that Cirque du Soleil alumni could never perform the feat in a thousand years, the stones in mid-air have no purchase on the air anyway! Priest is hereby required to say three 'Hail Mary's and Two 'Our Father's as penance for breaking even movie science laws of physics.

Second place winner of the 'most ridiculous action sequence' involves someone leaping off a superbike moving at over 200 miles per hour. There are no atheists in foxholes, or on superbikes moving 200+ miles per hour.

The 'coolness' is throwaway coolness, however. The backstory is never really touched upon. For example, the priests possess nearly superhuman reflexes and agility,  but it's never explained in much detail. Is this a result of their training? Are they just very superior humans in general? Mutants? It's never really explained. They're badass, can we move on please? Please? Ok, fine movie, we'll move on.

Even the vampires are disappointing; reduced to just monsters without any personality whatsoever. Not a single vampire in the movie speaks, gloats, or emotes at all. These are not Victorian vampires, or punk vampires from Dracula or Blade, respectively. They're vaguely humanoid, without any eyes, and they jump around a lot.

That said, the coolness in Priest does have its genuinely good moments. As expected, various priestly paraphenalia are weaponized, including cruciform daggers, etc. All the religious iconography is well-designed, and the production team deserves credit for nailing it. Even the crucifixes look made for a different world. These are crucifixes made for a dangerous, bleak future -- they're made to last, made of tempered steel. The most clever invention in this vein is seen when Priest is encircled by vampires and opens his Bible and begins to read. Of course, it's more than a Bible. The opened pages eject a constellation of cruciform throwing stars into the air, and in slow motion Priest deftly plucks them out of the air and tosses them into the vamps.

Don't even ask how rosary beads are weaponized.

The acting, given the material, is adequate. The main players (especially Karl Urban as the villain named 'Black Hat') feel underused. Black Hat used to be a priest himself, but Priest (Paul Bettany) had a Cliffhanger-style moment in which he dropped Black Hat into a nest of vampires years ago. Now Black Hat has returned as a 'human vampire' (oh no!) and it's painful to see a good actor like Urban be forced to chew the scenery.

Watching the credits underscores why the plot failed so miserably. Almost every character is named for an archtype. 'Priest', 'Priestess' (that was Maggie Q), Black Hat, Bold Priest, Strong Priest, etc. If the screenwriters couldn't bother to even give the characters real names how can the audience be expected to care about them?

The emphasis is on eyecandy, not on creating developed characters, so Priest's attempts at being dramatic come across as wooden and silly. Bettany's acting is the best in the film, but the poor guy feels like a good actor trapped in action movie hell. Here's hoping that someone gives him a more serious role.

This is primarily an action film with clever sci-fi horror trappings and some interesting action sequences, but not much else in the way of storyline or character development. Let's all say some prayers for Paul Bettany, May he receive better roles in the future. Amen.

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