Priest is not a great film. Priest is also not a terrible one. It exists in the space between the two -- where pseudo-ambitious middle-of-the-road fare is doomed for eternity. It is a flick that will appear on discount shelves for years to come. Pieces from other genre staples course through its veins in order to keep it palatable to the geek crowd, yet Priest breaks no new ground. It elects to use uninspired no-eyed gooey demon monsters (à la Constantine) as its vampire villains, which only makes the mythology surrounding them all the more silly once they start -- and never stop -- hopping all over the place. Though they apparently have intelligence, that's never shown -- a prime example of its creators under-thinking things. But the filmmakers sure did pay a lot of attention to the design of everything else. One thing is certain -- Priest is not that bad of a movie to look at.
Count the visual nods to other films and you might get tired. Blade Runner, Judge Dredd, and Blade all figure in one way or another. Thankfully for the production, they got animation great Genndy Tartakovsky (Samurai Jack, Star Wars: Clone Wars) to make an opening that lays out the lore in a dynamic and exciting way. That's not to say the backstory is all that amazing; basically, it consists of an alternate history where rabid vampire clans fought humans in massive battles, ending in many casualties on both sides. The Church, ever a powerful force within the society, unleashes a new weapon -- the hyper-trained ninja-like fighters "The Priests" -- to take down the undead once and for all. Flash forward years in the future -- the Church has walled its urban inhabitants inside a city where there's no threat of the beasts, whom they claim are long extinct. When a retired Priest hears that his brother's family was attacked, he splits from the order and heads off into the Wasteland to settle the score.
Priest starts to cook when it gets out of the dank, oppressive city and into the neat desert landscapes as Priest takes his journey. With heavy Western undertones, the look is executed in an almost-classic style that's better than much that comes afterward. Paul Bettany is fine in his role as the near-silent fighter. He mostly lets his stoic body language do the talking for him, which is good for the audience. Thankfully, Priest has no sidekick comic relief, yet for all its serious tones, it doesn't switch up the action enough to keep things lively. Halfway through there's a fight scene that might be the best one in the movie, when both Bettany and another ally, Maggie Q, battle a super-vampire monster -- ending its life in what could be the film's most absurd moment. From then on, the film either needed to get even crazier or step up the stakes in a different way than just making Karl Urban a vampire in a duster. Oh yeah, but the end fight is on top of a speeding train.... Oh yeah, but the audience doesn't care.
Priest ends with a promise that if given another chance, they'd be able to see a real monster get taken on -- because that's really what an audience wants, a tease of things the picture wasn't able to deliver in the first place. The movie actually knocks itself when it winks at the proposition of a sequel, since obviously it wasn't in the budget to go there in the first place. It's that sort of thing that makes an all-right movie seem even worse. See, for the most part, Priest is a fine time-waster of a flick. But, make no bones about it, there's nothing more to it than that. Director Scott Stewart has yet to impress beyond the initial cool factor of the angels-with-machine-guns concept behind his first film, Legion. Here, a post-apocalyptic priest takes on nonthreatening CG vampires -- okay, what else you got? Oh, that's it? Funny, it seems like there should be more than just that. Still, it could've been a whole lot worse.