Priest (review)

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Priest with Paul Bettany

Less Is More

The last time director Scott Stewart and star Paul Bettany made a supernatural horror flick, it was last year’s quite literally God-awful Legion. That movie, about badass angels fightin’ in the zombie apocalypse so Jesus II can be born, or something, was — entirely apart from its many other fatal flaws — an insult to religion. And I take offensive at that even as someone who thinks religion is complete and utter bunk.
And I’m still that same someone who thinks that religion is complete and utter bunk as I’m saying that, um, goddamn, but Priest is pretty awesomely good. Here’s the twist beyond that twist: part of why I think Priest rocks is because it’s all about the clash between the power of the institution of The Church — which is vaguely postapocalyptically post-Catholic here — and the power of personal faith and belief, and beyond that the notion that God — if there is a god at all, that is — would so want nothing to do with those assholes using his name for their own enrichment and supremacy down on Earth.

Priest is a lot of about that, while it’s also about killing nasty vampire monsters and blowing things up and stuff.

Working from Min-Woo Hyung’s graphic novel [Amazon U.S.] [Amazon Canada] [Amazon U.K.], Stewart and Bettany have given us a supernatural horror flick that actually works, on a lot of levels. In a bleak, repressed retro future — think Canticle for Leibowitz meets 1984 with some Firefly and Blade Runner thrown in — a caste of warrior pseudo-Catholic, pseudo-Jedi priests had been protecting humanity from a scourge of wicked animalistic vampires, until their services were no longer needed and they were discarded. So, there’s also that as a little running subtheme, too, about how a society creates the warriors it thinks it needs and them abandons them when they’re not needed anymore. That’s pretty much some bullshit that needs to be eradicated, too.

Or maybe they’re still needed. Cuz out on that Firefly-esque future-retro-western frontier far away from the Blade Runner-esque city, damn if there isn’t a zombie attack. (The settlers have zombie shelters. I guess you would if zombies were a bigger problem than tornadoes.) And this brings the dude known only as Priest (Bettany: The Tourist, Iron Man 2) out of his disgraced retirement, because the only known survivor of the attack is his niece, who was carried off by the vampires. For why? Who knows! It can’t be good, though.

The Church denies there’s any vampire threat, so Priest is on his own… except for the Priestess (Maggie Q: Balls of Fury, Live Free or Die Hard), who’s one badlass and is also probably in love with Priest even though it’s forbidden, and Hicks (Cam Gigandet: Burlesque, Easy A), the pseudo-western sheriff who happened to be in love with the niece and wants to save her before she gets eaten and stuff.

There’s also Karl Urban (Red, Star Trek), who was a priest, and now he’s called Black Hat, and you know that ain’t a harbinger of sweetness and light.

The thing that so cool about Priest is that even though it’s easy to point out how derivative it is in a lot of ways, it’s also sort of thrilling in how spare and clean and unself-conscious it is about itself, while also acknowledging where it comes from. No movie that I can recall has appropriated more beautifully and more fittingly the graphic-novel style: this looks what a comic book in motion should look like, while also being able to take advantage of the nuances of human expression that living actors — as opposed to static drawings on a page — can bring to a story. The story and characters are just as magnificently lean, existing starkly atop a complex world that we just barely glimpse: rare is the film today that holds back more than it shows us.

That’s a wonderful sort of tease. It’s a talent for seduction, for leaving us wanting more rather than exhausted and disenchanted by getting too much, that more movies need to rediscover.

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