Friday, May 13, 2011
The studio was right to keep "Priest" (opening May 13 throughout San Diego) under wraps till the very last moment.
Let me just say that the idea of going to seeing "Priest" at midnight Thursday (since the studio did not hold a press screening) proved to be a bad idea. To begin with, the audience had to suffer through a quartet of horrible trailers in which there was not a single fresh idea anywhere on display. There were three remakes -- "Conan the Barbarian," "Straw Dogs" (the trailer showed us EVERYTHING that happens), and "Fright Night" -- and one "original" film ("The Change-Up") that felt like we had seen it's body swap story one too many times already. So the audience was bombarded with crap and had its patience tested even BEFORE the feature started to roll. Then "Priest" began and it only got worse.
"Priest" is based on the Korean manhwa (comic book) by Hyung Min-woo. The highly stylized comic book series was set in a retro future American west and focused on a priest who gave his soul to a demon in exchange for immortality and supernatural powers that he could use to fight off other devils. I have not read the comic book series but from what I understand they explore questions of faith, and blur the line between good and evil as the priest runs the risk of being consumed by the evil inside him. That kind of storyline occurs in anime and manga where serving up a protagonist that is not all good is quite popular and adds a nice layer of complexity to the genre elements.
The film "Priest," directed by Scott Charles Stewart and adapted by Cory Goodman, leaves all the interesting elements behind and focuses on only the conventional ones. They open the film with an animated sequence (that proves to be the best thing in the movie) but the animation fails to reference the cool imagery of the original manhwa. This opening provides the backstory on how priests came to be the ones fighting the demons and vampires posing a threat to humans. Then the film jumps to the live action and to the main story involving a man only referred to as Priest (Paul Bettany) who was formerly connected to an order of clergy selected for their special abilities to fight vampires. He is no longer part of the order but rather on a personal mission of vengeance to rescue his niece (Lily Collins) from the vampires and Black Hat (Karl Urban). Priest is joined by a woman known only as Priestess (Maggie Q) and Hicks (Cam Gigandet). Off they go to fight vamps and rescue the girl. Notions of good and evil, and troubled faith are pushed aside for lame 3D effects, and occasionally enjoyable fights and creature design.
"Priest's" shortcomings should not really come as a surprise. Previously, Stewart directed the equally lame "Legion," which also mixed religion and demonic creatures. That film also starred Bettany, who at one time looked to have a promising career as a real actor ("Gangster No. 1," "Dogville") rather than one that deals with CGI threats. Both "Legion" and "Priest" suffer from similar failures. Both films rely on poor scripts and then fail to serve up innovation or even interest. "Priest" in particular relies on a formulaic revenge plot to fuel its action and then it has the audacity to leave an open ended resolution that promises a sequel. I can only pray that a sequel never materializes.
Stewart comes from a visual effects background and some genuinely impressive work at the effects house The Orphanage. So "Priest" delivers the occasional attractive visual -- the creature design for the animalistic vampires are quite good and mercifully these vamps don't sparkle. And some of the fights, like the Priestess' dismembering of an opponent, are well done. But overall the effects fail to make use of the 3D technology in any way. Plus the film suffers from the fact that all the effects and creatures appear to be CGI, ultimately making the film rather unengaging. Hollywood relies far too heavily on pure CGI effects not understanding that it's the films that mix CGI with practical effects (like what Peter Jackson and Guillermo Del Toro have done in "Lord of the Rings" and "Hellboy" respectively) that work far better. Films like "Priest" fail to integrate the CGI elements fully into the story and to convince us that the human actors are actually interacting with their computer generated counterparts. But come to think of it, the human characters aren't that engaging either. The suppressed relationship between Priest and Priestess fails to generate any real emotions, and the drama about Priest's rebellion against the organized clergy is muffled amidst all the chaotic action and meaningless plot.
"Priest" also suffers from pretension. It can be refreshing to have an action film that plays it straight but "Priest" is so loaded with cliches that it needs to display some sense of humor or acknowledgement that it's playing off of familiar elements. Without a sense of humor, "Priest" comes off as just silly because we recognize the cliches while Stewart behaves like he's just discovered them. At least the recent "The Warrior's Way" (directed by South Korea's Sngmoo Lee) displayed a similar sense of formula but with a goofy over-the-top style that seemed to wink at the audience and include them in on the joke.
I heard someone reviewing "Priest" (rated PG-13 for intense sequences of violence and action, disturbing images and brief strong language) and saying that it was designed for the fans of graphic novels and comics and would please them. I disagree. It's the kind of film that people who do not appreciate graphic novels and comics think is perfectly tailored for those fans. But anyone who actually reads comics and graphic novels is continually frustrated by the way Hollywood simplifies source material and rushes these comic/graphic novel adaptations out as if these adaptations can just be mass assembled. The adaptations comics fans appreciate are ones like "Scott Pilgrim," "Hellboy," "Sin City," and "Kick-Ass." Films that respect the source material and try to find a way to make the comics work in the medium of film.
Companion viewing: " Hellsing" (anime), "Vampire Hunter D," "The Warrior's Way"