Priest is a Hollywood adaptation of yet another comic book, this time from Korean illustrator/ creator Hyung Min Woo, about a post apocalyptic world at the end of the great war between man and vampire. While audiences tend to dismiss it as another generic action flick which caters to the expectations of comic book geeks the world over, the film actually manages to transcend boundaries and come up with a decent action horror movie.
The plot: As the war between the two races grew more violent, survivors sought the sanctuary of the church and hid within a walled city to exist in a society controlled by church leaders. Paul Bettany leads the cast as Priest, a man of the cloth who is specifically handpicked by the church, along with several others, to terminate all vampires and protect the citizens of the city from the dangers beyond the walls. After many years, the battles waged by the Priests against the enemy resulted in man’s triumph over the vampires. The creatures were contained in high security reservation camps in the desert, their threat to mankind neutralized. With their mission over, the priests are disbanded and integrated with the rest of society as regular folk, made to labor for wages and serve the church without question. However, beyond the walls of the city in the wastelands, Priest’s niece Lucy is taken hostage by a strengthening group of vampire survivors (leftovers from the exterminations) who plan to attack the walled city to take their revenge on the humans. When Priest seeks the counsel of Monsignor Orelas, the highest leader of the church, he is forbidden from staging any rescue or undertaking any investigation into the resurfacing of vampires. Left with no choice, Priest goes rogue and teams up with Sheriff Hicks (his niece’s boyfriend) to search for leads to rescue Lucy.
The comic montage of vampire/human war and the role played by priests at the beginning was a great way to establish the story and set the tone of the film, especially for those who have not read the gothic novel. Within the first five minutes, the film audience will find themselves on the same page as hard core fans of the comic book franchise and find themselves sympathetic to the plight of these religious warriors who have risked their lives for the safety of man but found themselves tossed aside the moment the danger was no longer imminent.
There were some parts of the movie (when Hicks and Priest were souring vampire reservations to track Lucy) that were kind of slow, but the film was generally well structured and told in a straightforward manner. Some of the scenes in the vampire hives were a bit dark, and could have benefited from a bit more lighting to highlight major action sequences like the one between Priest and the Guardian. The stunts were presented in a Matrix like fashion, but had the tendency to overdo the slowmo in some scenes, compromising the impact of the stunts on the audience.
The cast was excellent but Maggie Q, who plays Priestess, a woman of the cloth who has feelings for Bettany’s character, was a tad underutilized in this film, since there was hardly enough scenes to showcase her martial arts expertise (Nikita, Naked Weapon). Cam Gigandet, on the other hand, finds himself in a departure from his typical roles as a self assured college boy or bloodthirsty vampire, when he bats for the opposite side this time as a human lawman who finds himself outclassed by the faster, stronger vampires who have taken Lucy. True Blood fans will also get a kick out of seeing Vampire Bill (Stephen Moyer) as a human, this time playing the role of Priest’s brother Owen. Paul Bettany was a better fit for the lead compared to the film outfit’s first choice, Gerard Butler. For one, because physically, Butler is a bit on the bulkier side and could not move as lithely as Bettany. Besides, Bettany is is already at home in donning cleric outfits after he has donned them in The Da Vinci Code. He also had great practice in playing a warrior of God after he took the role of the fallen angel Michael in Legion to great success. Karl Urban, who recently bagged the role of Dredd in the remake of Judge Dredd also played a very effective villain in the form of Black Hat, a former priest who was turned into a vampire by their queen.
Priest is based on fiction but does not find itself without social and political underpinings. It carries deep political and religious undertones especially when it mentioned the line “When you go after the Church, you go after God” numerous times throughout the movie. It also questions the source and the focus of man’s faith (God or the Church) and how the actions and decisions of one man in power can influence the entire flock (in this case, the power hungry Monsignor Orelas).
The film does not demonize the church per se, but rather used the institution as a fictional personification of realities in society — such as how, in the interest of peace, the church chose to deny the strength of vampires outside the perimeter walls. There was also dissension among the clergy on how to handle Priest at the beginning when he sought permission to rescue his niece, but the more compassionate voices were overpowered by those who had the most authority.
All in all, Priest was a good movie, probably not as colorful as one would expect from a comic book adaptation, but then again, it is based on a gothic novel, which is generally of a darker feel than average action comics. Priest left the door wide open for a sequel depending perhaps on its box office performance ($20 million worldwide to date), but also provided closure for this installment should producers choose to end with this chapter. Would it drum up more sales for its literary counterpart? Perhaps, to a certain extent, in order for some of the audiences to get deeper into the story, but the movie is pretty much cut and dried at this point, so there may be no need it for most. P.S. The original manhwa comics from which the film was based deals with a battle between man and 12 fallen angels (not vampires), so there might be something there of interest for those who want to check out the comic books after all.