If ever there were a movie destined for slightly above average, it would be one about a post-apocalyptic confrontation between vampires and rogue priests. With Paul Bettany as the protagonist clergyman and a script adapted from a well-received graphic novel, Priest should be wrestling with African Cats and preparing to ward off Piranha 3DD as the best novelty B-movie of the year; instead, it’s more illogical than Sucker Punch, more joyless than Big Mommas: Like Father Like Son and more frustrating than any film I’ve had the misfortune of seeing this year. Priest is a funeral procession of disappointing detours and obvious reveals. It’s a complete and utter failure. It starts with a horrid animation sequence and ends with a shameless sequel grab. The only question is whether the middle is somehow worse. I’d venture to say yes, but only because that section of the story has the audacity to take itself seriously.
It’s one thing for a movie to be stupid. Many of my favorite movies of all-time are almost pathologically stupid. Every film doesn’t need to be Saving Private Ryan. There’s plenty of space in the cinematic calendar to watch snakes bite people on planes and priests throw crosses through vampire necks. Perhaps more than other people, I’m willing to take a ludicrous plot and just go with it, but for a movie to be aggressively idiotic and still pretend like it’s logically sound and of a higher purpose is totally unacceptable. If you’re gonna slap the audience in the face, at least smile while you’re doing it.
Priest (Paul Bettany) hasn’t been doing a whole lot of anything lately. After the Great Vampire War, his unit of highly trained undead-hunting men and women of the cloth was disbanded and forced to get tedious, real world jobs inside a metropolis the Church constructed to keep the menaces out. It’s entirely walled in and absent sunlight because evolution apparently eradicates common sense at some point in the future. Loyalty and reasonable decision-making also took a hit, or at least that’s how it seems after Priest’s family is abducted by vampires and the Church refuses to let our lead come to their rescue. They’re concerned his leaving would get the people worried, though those fears don’t extend to the four priests they immediately send after him when he chooses to disobey.
Partnering with a local sheriff who doubles as the abducted girl’s boyfriend (Cam Gigandet), Priest and his new friend investigate vampire hives right before sundown, leading to a few needless confrontations and marginally graphic bloodbaths. Most of the heathens seem to have disappeared, but those remaining are tortured enough to point the way toward Jericho, a bustling city filled with vampires, priests and one kidnapped lady. The Second Great War is about to begin, but to fight it, Priest will need more than one accomplice.
That convenient third hand comes by way of Priestess (Maggie Q). She’s one of the four the Church has sent out to find their rogue brother, but unlike the other three, she has a long history with Priest. The two were partners for years and share an uncomfortable sexual tension, just the sort of x-factor one might need to join a renegade outfit in search of a missing girl. She doesn’t take much convincing, but her presence is of little comfort after the team discovers Jericho absent its population and burned to the ground save three well-intentioned priests hanging from crosses.
I wish I could tell you the final act of Priest was an undead Armageddon. I wish I could tell you it was filled with daring and acrobatic maneuvers, ebbs and flows of momentum and a sense of vindication. It’s not. Like the rest of the film, it’s a poorly executed mess. Hearts are ripped out of chests one minute and hats gently float from the sky the next. Sometimes we’re asked to sympathize with the vampires, and sometimes we’re made to think they’re a murderous and gruesome species. There’s no rhyme or reason to any of it. It’s like a story written by a dozen different authors of varying skill levels rotating every other sentence. There’s no tone or direction because none of them bothered coordinating before hand.
I suspect plenty of critics and angry fans will blame this film’s irrefutable awfulness on the subject matter. Those critiques will be misguided. I would still watch a movie about priests slaughtering the undead. Just not this one. Please priest not this one.