Judge Gordon Sullivan wants to do a vampire gardening picture.
The war is eternal. His mission is just the beginning.
Despite the protestations of many comics writers and artists that graphic novels and films are very different media, adaptations of comics are a popular fixture in Hollywood. This is probably because comic adaptations are a hard package to resist. Because of the very graphic nature of the comics medium, skittish executives can get a very good idea of the "look" of a property without investing much in development. Adaptations also tend to have a built-in fan base, making them attractive from a monetary point of view. Priest must have seemed like a sure thing; it's an adaptation of a stylish comic (from Korea) that can cash in on the recent upswing we've seen in vampire-related material. Despite these strengths (and a solid cast to boot), Priest was pretty much panned on its appearance in 2011. However, this DVD will allow those with lower expectations to enjoy a decent, if unremarkable sci-fi/Western/horror flick.
Facts of the Case
In an alternate, post-apocalyptic future, vampires and humans coexist. However, humans are so inferior to vampires that they required Priests to protect them. Now, the vampires have been defeated by the Priests and are forced to live on reservations. With their services no longer required, Priests have been turned into outcasts. Then, some vampires steal a little girl, and she just happens to be the niece of one of these retired Priests (Paul Bettany, Legion). Against the orders of the Church, this Priest pursues the vampires (including Keith Urban) with the help of a sheriff (Cam Giganet, Never Back Down) and discovers some shocking secrets along the way.
It's right there on the box, so it must be true: "[Priest is] quite possibly the most original vampire movie you'll ever see." This would be true, if by original the writer meant "steals the most number of ideas from the most varied number of genres and puts them all together." Remember The Searchers, John Ford's classic Western? John Wayne played a Confederate soldier whose niece was taken by Native Americans so he and a young man went travelling through the West to find the young girl (threatening all the while to kill her if she "went native"). Priest is The Searchers, but we get Paul Bettany instead of John Wayne, and vampires instead of Native Americans. Also, instead of Scar, the bad guy is Black Hat, a Priest that Paul Bettany failed to save. It's still fundamentally about two guys (one of whom has a really shadowy past) out to save a young woman from the threatening natives. Sure, the film cribs from some other sources (notably V for Vendetta) in the depiction of a totalitarian and surveillance-oriented society), but Priest is a Western at its heart.
Taken on its own terms, as an effects-laden mashup of post-apocalyptic sci-fi, horror, and Western conventions, the film offers 80 or so minutes of diversion. With no expectations going in, I found the film a visually interesting bit of action fluff. The film's take on vampire mythology is perhaps its most "original" element, and the combination of Western trappings with a bit of a sci-fi bent works well (though not quite as well as it has in shows like Firefly). The religious angle is also done pretty well. It might offend some of the more devout, but the totalitarian religious vibe of the film works without being hammered on.
Considering the film barely made back its budget in the theaters (and that's only if you include domestic and international grosses), it gets a pretty impressive DVD. For a film this visually oriented and recent, it's no surprise that the 2.40:1 anamorphic transfer is top notch. Black levels are deep, detail is impressive, and the film's muted color palette is well saturated. Some of the more effects-oriented shots can look a bit "off," but that's probably not the fault of this transfer. The 5.1 surround track is similarly impressive. The dialogue comes out clearly through the center channel, and the surrounds get a good workout during some of the more tense scenes. The low end is impressively thumpy during action sequences.
The extras start with an audio commentary featuring the director (Scott Stewart), writer (Cory Goodman) and two stars (Maggie Q and Paul Bettany) of Priest. The writer and director dominate this talky track with info about the film's production (including its long gestation), but Maggie Q and Paul Bettany get a few chances to discuss their experiences as well. For those who didn't get enough Priest, there are twelve-and-a-half minutes of deleted and extended scenes, including more flashbacks and fights (and an ending that more explicitly recalls The Searchers visually). Finally, there is a pair of featurettes. The first looks at creating the world of Priest, and the second looks at the weapons and vehicles of the film. Both feature behind-the-scenes footage and talking head interviews with those involved with the effects.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
There are a lot of reasons to hate on Priest, and I can definitely see why it didn't set the box office on fire. First up is the PG-13 rating. An action/horror hybrid that's light on the blood doesn't fly with most fans, for good reason. Sure the vamps here are creepy, but without much blood flying they seem a little toothless (though this may be corrected in the unrated cut, available exclusively on Blu-ray). Second, this story is a bit generic. The world of Priest is compelling, but it's wasted on the trite "good vs. evil" storyline presented in the final film. That world is also presented visually in a distinct style, and those who don't like CGI effects will likely tire quickly of Priest's visuals. Finally, the acting here is a bit on the stoic side, to put it generously. All involved are excellent actors, but they're not given much to work with. Consequently there's a lot of standing and staring.
With no expectations going in, I enjoyed Priest as a big, dumb action movie. It's popcorn genre fare that demands little of the audience, but despite its fairly dismal box office performance the film has garnered a pretty impressive DVD release, making it worth a rental to sci-fi, horror, or Western aficionados, and fans of any of the actors.
Don't expect an American classic, but Priest is not guilty.
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