Priest [2011]

Movie review of ‘Priest’, released in NZ August 2011.

Is it a horror movie? Is it a science fiction movie? Is it a western? Or is it something else, a mixture of all three that is in some ways greater than the sum of its genre parts, the cinema industry’s response to fusion cuisine. Whatever it is, it works.

I approached this opus with some misgivings, but – I hope – an open mind, when I went to have a look when it opened at Hoyt’s Northlands.

The movie is a melange of several very popular elements; action, Vampires, the church militant, and the wild west of the United States of America. Let me look at these one at a time.

Firstly, action. Well, yes, certainly. Pretty much every other film these days has plenty of action – fist fights, knife fights, gun fights, fights with arcane and often bizarrely shaped weaponry. ‘Priest’ has all these in fast, furious succession. Next, Vampires. These creatures have been a sure-fire cinematographic winner since Nosferatu hit the celluloid almost a century ago, and over the last few years have enjoyed enormous popularity, particularly amongst the younger demographic. Thanks largely to the phenomenal success of Buffy and her friends, and then the equally meteoric success of the Twilight novels and movies, Vampires have stormed across the ratings charts and into the teenage consciousness as never before.

The Vampires of ‘Priest’, however, are a different breed to those encountered by Jonathan Harker or Buffy or Kate Beckinsale. These are not corrupted humans, but a breed apart. Based on the graphic novel of Korean writer Min-Woo Hyung, they a new concept again. The world of ‘Priest’ is not a post-apocalyptic landscape, or a future of ours in which society has degenerated, but an alternate universe entirely. Min-Woo envisages centuries-long war between two wholly separate species, Human and Vampire, which saw ever more powerful weapons deployed, leading ultimately to complete climactic and environmental degradation.

Ultimate victory was finally gained thanks to the assistance of an organization known as The Church [of which more below], which developed, trained and deployed a corps of super-soldiers, warrior priests whose inspiration is very clearly the Knights Templar, and against whom the Vampires were helpless. The Vampires were largely destroyed, their Hives, the great colonies in which they lived, reduced, and the survivors confined to small reservations. Most Humans retreated to vast walled Cathedral-Cities, controlled by The Church, while a few rebels chose to live in the Badlands outside, scratching a simple living from the seared earth and living in little communities that bear a striking resemblance to the towns of the old ‘Wild West’ of America. They even have Sheriffs. An uneasy peace has settled over the world [which is to say, the United States; – we have no idea what is happening in New Zealand, Burkina Faso or the Ukraine, let alone the Muslim lands], a peace upheld by The Church.

The Church is not the Roman Catholic Church, although it has all the symbols, tokens and structures of Roman Catholicism. It has the cross as its most potent symbol and nexus of power. It has Cathedrals, and the confessional, in which penitents are abjured to say Hail Marys and Our Fathers. The bible is prominent, and the Priest recites part of the 23rd Psalm [The Lord is my Shepherd, etc.] before going into battle. The senior clerics are addressed as Monsignor. Lower ranks are Priests, and addressed as Father. There is no mention of Bishops, let alone a Pope.

To take things right off the Roman Catholic track, one of the Priests Militant is a woman. Like the central character, the eponymous Priest, she has no given name and is referred to as the ‘Priestess’ [Maggie Q], but how she might be formally addressed we never find out. Is she ‘Sister’? No, that would make her a nun. ‘Mother’? Hardly. And not even the Anglican Church, which ordains women, refers to them as ‘Priestesses’, a term redolent with paganism. This is an anomaly that Min-Woo chooses to brush to one side, and who can blame him? It is his fantasy, after all.

Lastly, the Wild West element. The world has regressed from its formerly high civilization, back to a more barbarous, primitive state. What, in the American consciousness, it a primitive state of being? The Wild West, of course, with its sheriff, its holstered pistols and its women in corsets. Ergo, the roistering, lawless outland towns become Tombstone, and the fight between the Priests and the Vampires becomes the Gunfight at the OK Corral with state-of-the-fantasy weapons.

The problem for the Priests is that, with the cessation of hostilities, they became redundant. The Church, fearing that it had created too potent a weapon and one that might one day redound upon them, dissolved the Order and dispersed its members. Then, when the niece [Lily Collins] of the Priest, [Paul Bettany], is captured by resurgent Vampires under the command of the Black Hat [Karl Urban], he naturally wants to dash off to the rescue, but his superior, the Monsignor Orelas [Christopher Plummer] orders him to remain in the Cathedral City. The Vampires are defeated, Orelas imperiously informs the Priest, the war is over, and The Church is in control of everything. Needless to say, the Priest ignores this edict and dashes off in pursuit, ably assisted by Sheriff Hicks [Cam Gigandet].

Thereafter they travel not on horses, but on motor-bikes with nitro-boosters, machines that make a Triumph Bonneville look like a two-stroke Vespa. Their journey becomes a dizzying odyssey across burning deserts, through ruined and long abandoned skyscrapers, into a Vampire Hive and a Wild West Town, culminating in a battle royal on top of an armoured train.

The production is of very high standard, with outstanding special effects, and a very strong cast with some excellent character actors in smaller parts. Brad Dourif [Wormtongue in ‘Lord of the Rings’] is just right as the sleazy snake-oil merchant who gets his just deserts, and veteran actors Christopher Plummer [who rose to cinema immortality as Captain Von Trapp in the 1965 work ‘The Sound of Music’] as the Monsignor Orelas and Alan Dale as Monsignor Chamberlain are outstanding, of course, but there is almost no character development in any part except that of the Priest. Lily is particularly vapid, and the rest are two-dimensional clichés, but all do an excellent job the despite the literary confines within they are constrained.

That is not to say that the movie fails, or that production or acting are lacking. It does not. They are not. This movie does not present itself as anything but a rip-roaring action yarn, a visual comic-book. It is all about ‘biff-kapow’ and ‘Urgh-Argh’ and some spectacular special effects; the huge Vampire-beast that attacks the Priest and the Priestess, a very close relative of the trolls of Mordor, it would appear, is particularly magnificent. It is all about sitting back, suspending disbelief for an hour and a half, and enjoying a really first-rate roller-coaster of thrills. And look out for ‘Priest Part Two’. It will not be long in coming.

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