To say that “Priest” is a better vampire movie than “Dylan Dog: Dead of Night” would be the very definition of “damning with faint praise,” but that’s about the best that can be said for this tiresome compilation of clichés and familiar plot devices. If there’s anything notable about the level of derivativeness that “Priest” achieves, it’s that it borrows so much from so many genres.
We begin in a grim, dystopic city of the future that feels cobbled together from “Blade Runner,” “Brazil,” and “THX 1138.” There had been centuries of war between man and vampires, until the church created an army of vamp-killing priests who managed to destroy most of the blood-suckers and sent the rest to live in reservations. With humanity now safely ensconced in church-run walled cities, the priests have been forgotten and shunned from polite society.
Cut to a Western town – complete with lace curtains, bonnet-clad women, grim farmers, and gun-twirling sheriffs – where a “vamp-pack” kidnaps sweet young Lucy (Lily Collins) and kills her mother (an unrecognizable Mädchen Amick). The aforementioned sheriff, Hicks (Cam Gigandet), travels to the city to get Lucy’s uncle, a retired Priest (Paul Bettany), to help him rescue her. While the church refuses to sanction the Priest’s return to combat, he nonetheless goes rogue to save the girl.
Two of the Priest’s former colleagues come into play – a Priestess (Maggie Q) who helps him in his quest, mainly because she’s been starved for action and deprived of the company of her fellow priests, and Black Hat (Karl Urban), a former man of the cloth who has become the enemy after being transformed into a vampire himself.
So yeah, you’ve got grimy future and dusty Old West, then add vampires and a dollop of “Mad Max” (the Priests scoot around the desert on motorcycles), “Batman” (Priest has a utility bible loaded with lots of nifty weapons – who knew that crucifixes made such nifty throwing stars?) and “The Matrix” (lots of mid-air, slo-mo martial arts gymnastics), and the results are a tedious wallow in familiarity. (And if you see it in 3-D, it’s even less pleasing to look at, all for a higher ticket price.)
Yes, there’s nothing new under the sun, and all the stories have been told, but sheesh – “Priest” is such a cobbled-together amalgam of old plot devices (the Priest’s vow to kill Lucy should she have been “contaminated” by the vampires is right out of “The Searchers”) and Screenwriting 101 character types that it’s next to impossible to take seriously.
Actually, there’s one new idea in “Priest” – Hicks accidentally puts his hand into some green goo, and Priest informs that it’s basically vampire guano. (“They excrete it to build their hives.”) Of course that means that later, when they find a vampire hive the size of a mountain, all I could think was, "That’s a lot of pooping."
Confounding matters is the trifecta of awful performances among the film’s leads. Bettany seems to think he’s channeling Clint Eastwood, but his monotone, clenched-teeth performance calls to mind The Man Who Needs a Laxative more than it does The Man With No Name. Urban, so amusing as Bones McCoy in the “Star Trek” reboot, glowers and roars a lot, although the result feels more bratty than menacing.
And then there’s Cam Gigandet. Lately, it feels like there are two things you can count on in a Screen Gems movie. 1) It will suck. 2) It will feature Cam Gigandet. And he will suck. He was tolerably bland in the ludicrous “Burlesque” and “The Roommate,” but here he gives a series of wooden and unconvincing line readings that need to be put alongside Chris Klein’s turn in “Street Fighter: The Legend of Chun-Li” in the Terrible Acting Hall of Fame.
If anyone comes out of “Priest” without embarrassment, it’s Maggie Q, whose underplaying feels organic to the character and not just an actorly pose, and Christopher Plummer, madly chewing the scenery as the corrupt head of the church. He knows what movie he’s in and treats us to some entertaining, old-school ham-mery.
Skip “Priest” in theaters, but once it hits home video, it will no doubt make a great drinking game for film nerds – take a shot when they borrow a camera angle from “Shane”!
"Priest" is now in wide release.