Tuesday, May 17, 2011

They Know Not What They Do: PRIEST

The strange thing about failed would-be cult-hit B-movies is the consistent way they have of casting one or two people who seem to be in on the joke, so to speak. In the case of Priest, a bad post-apocalyptic dystopian sci-fi vampire western from Scott Stewart, the director of Legion, last year’s bad fallen-angel western siege picture, Christopher Plummer, Alan Dale and Karl Urban do a good job of splitting the difference between earnestly stylized and overtly conscious scenery-chewing. They’re on the right half-goofy vibe but only appear in a handful of scenes and it’s a shame no one else involved in the production could join them.

This is a movie that takes place in a future aftermath of a war between humans and animalistic vampires that is neatly, quickly summarized in a nifty animated prologue from Genndy Tartakovsky. It tells us that The Church (presumably Catholic, but they never say so you never know) sent out priest warriors that beat back the vampires with their crucifix-throwing-stars and rounded them up into prison camps in the wilds of wherever they are. Now, however, the priests are disbanded outcasts. Maybe that’s because their faces are covered forehead to the tip of the nose are tattooed with blood-red crosses. You’d think the society would have more respect for the people who saved them, but there you have it.

The story proper opens on one particular Priest (Paul Bettany) who discovers that his brother and his wife, dirt farmers in the middle of nowhere, have been attacked by vampires. What’s more, their daughter (Lily Collins) has been kidnapped. Unfortunately the head clergy (Christopher Plummer and Alan Dale) won’t allow the citizens of their world to know that there are still some active vampires and therefore cannot allow the kind of person who knows all about fighting these monsters to investigate. No, it’s much better to leave that task up to the in-over-his-head local small-town sheriff (Cam Gigandet, who continues his habit of appearing in the worst projects he can find).

So, surprise, Bettany disobeys his orders and heads out to find his niece. Yes, this clumsy little effects picture is a covert remake of the all-time great western The Searchers that replaces all of the moral dilemmas and rich characterization with CGI vampire beasts and empty exposition. It’s so backwards looking, keeping an eye on its inspirations (not just the most direct plot lift, but also a little Blade Runner here, a little Star Wars there), and also so forwards looking, staring off at its own sequel on the imagined horizon, that it forgets to get down to the business of being its own thing. It's altogether mostly dull.

In the gray, monotonous unraveling of this yarn, it turns out that the monstrous vampires didn’t do the kidnapping. See, it was Karl Urban, this world’s first human vampire who once worked with Paul Bettany as a priest but now, something something revenge something. Somehow a big black train is involved. Also, Maggie Q shows up as another priest who kind of likes Bettany but they kind of sort of have to be celibate even though they’re already disobeying their higher-ups. So, yeah, it’s that kind of movie, violent, confused, and oddly routine.

I lost track of the amount of times characters scowled or tore off across the desert in a motorcycle. At only 87 minutes, the plot seems awfully repetitive and, for the amount of enjoyment I got out of it, it feels about 81 minutes too long. Even the vampire fighting, the supposed reason for the movie’s existence is dull and confused. There’s some striking imagery to be found here and there throughout the picture; it’s stolen completely from other, better, movies but when it works it works. There’s also those halfway fun turns from Plummer and Dale, who turn up once at the beginning and then again at the end. Urban has a bit more time, but not much. He hams it up whenever possible, though. It hardly matters. By the time the movie wraps up hinting strongly about a sequel it feels less like a promise and more like a threat.

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