** Contains Spoilers **
Given the outcome of the last collaboration between director Scott Charles Stewart and star Paul Bettany, the tedious and confused LEGION, I wasn’t expecting much from their follow-up, PRIEST. Perhaps because my expectations were so low, I was surprised by how much I enjoyed it. Bettany plays the titular Priest, a kind of kick-ass clerical uber-ninja, bred and trained to obey the Church without question and to slay the vampires that have come perilously close to enslaving humanity. By means of a funky animated montage we’re informed that the Priests are successful in their quest and the vampires are relegated to ‘reservations,’ while the Priests are retired and fade into obscurity, ostracised by what’s left of the population and forced to take menial work to survive. When his brother’s family is attacked by vampires and his niece kidnapped, Bettany comes out of retirement and, against the Church’s edicts, embarks on a rescue/revenge mission.
If you’re after something original, look elsewhere. PRIEST plays like a greatest hits reel of all your favourite genre films. At its core it’s STAR WARS meets Sergio Leone, but there are nods to everything from THE MATRIX to Orwell’s 1984. ‘Black Hat,’ the main villain (played by Karl Urban, who looks like he’s using the opportunity to rehearse for his forthcoming role as Judge Dredd), is a day-walking vampire, straight out of the BLADE mould. The other vampires are CGI creations and the battle scenes resemble video game boss fights, more than a little reminiscent of the RESIDENT EVIL franchise. There’s the majestic mountainous terrain and oversized statues of THE LORD OF THE RINGS, the bulging egg sacs from ALIENS, THE DARK KNIGHT’s bike/batarangs, BLADE RUNNER’s grimy-future neon nightmare city. I could go on.
The story is equally predictable, recycling familiar elements from dozens of revenge movies. And there’s the rather obvious question of why the vampires were allowed to survive in the first place. According to the montage the vampires were on the verge of winning the war and exterminating humanity when the Priests turned the tide – why establish reservations and allow a breeding population of potentially lethal monsters to recover and regroup? It may be drawing a parallel between the treatment of the vampires and the subjugation and slaughter of native Americans by non-indigenous settlers, but if so it’s a veiled point that goes nowhere.
What saves PRIEST is its unpretentious sense of fun and cracking pace. It races from one exciting set piece to another, not giving you time to reflect on how familiar it all is. The casting is excellent, with a knowing turn from TRUE BLOOD’s Stephen Moyer as a hapless vampire victim, and a typically slimy performance from genre staple Brad Dourif. After the credits have rolled PRIEST isn’t going to linger long in anyone’s memory, but while it lasts it’s an enjoyable ride.