The Palestine Herald, Palestine, Texas

Opinion

May 20, 2011

MOVIE REVIEW: “Priest” unoriginal but still entertaining

PALESTINE — In 1956, venerable John Ford directed one of the most iconic westerns ever made: “The Searchers.”  In that movie, Ethan Edwards (played by John Wayne) returns from the Civil War to the frontier in Texas.  Martha, the girl he left behind, has married his brother Aaron.  A Comanche raid leaves Martha and Aaron dead, and their two daughters, Debbie and Lucy kidnapped.  Ethan pursues the Comanche.  Originally, he hopes to rescue Lucy and Debbie as well as avenge Martha and Aaron's deaths, but as the search continues, he is consumed with racism and intends to kill the “contaminated” girls as well.

If you've seen “The Searchers” you know the plot for “Priest.”  

Well, not really, because “Priest” occurs in the future.  And it doesn't involve Comanche and Confederate veterans; it involves vampires and warrior priests.  But large segments of plot and director Scott Charles Stewart's visual compositions owe a great deal to John Ford's classic.  He also borrows freely from “The Lord of the Rings,” “Once Upon a Time in the West,” “Mad Max,” “Underworld,” “Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon,” and TV's “Kung Fu.”  It is not surprising that “Priest” is a derivative work, as first-time screenwriter Cory Goodman adapted Min-Woo Hyung's graphic novel in the first place, but what makes “Priest” enjoyable is the unique combination of mimicry Stewart and Goodman utilize; almost every scene pays homage to more than one of the above films.  The movie is a visual feast, with an apocalyptic war recently waged and depicted in a comic book montage, isolated frontier towns and settlements, hand-to-hand aerial combat, futuristic weaponry, claustrophobic vampire “hives,” and motorcycle-train races on what appears to be the Bonneville salt flats.

Paul Bettany (“Legion,” “The Young Victoria”) plays the unnamed Priest (salute to Sergio Leone's spaghetti westerns) who is out to avenge his murdered brother Owen (Stephen Moyer, TV's “True Blood”) and his wife Shannon (Madchen Amick, TV's CSI: NY”), who was Priest's former love.  Priest had been a warrior dedicated to fighting the savage vampires, but the government, which is dominated by the church, which is ruled in turn by the Monsignor (Christopher Plummer, “Must Love Dogs”) has declared the war won, stripping the warrior priests of their authority.  Priest defies the law and pursues the vampires, led by Black Hat (Karl Urban, “Star Trek”), in hope of rescuing (or killing) Shannon's daughter Lucy (Lily Collins, “The Blind Side”).  Priest is accompanied by and assisted in his quest by the Sheriff (Cam Gigandet, “Easy A”), and Priestess (Maggie Q, “The King of Fighters”).

This is an image-rich movie short on dialogue. Still, the actors are generally credible. Paul Bettany is the hate-filled yet still sympathetic anti-hero portrayed by John Wayne in “The Searchers;” Mr. Bettany is able to register anguish and stoicism at the same time. Madchen Amick and Stephen Moyer make the most of their short-lived roles as Priest's doomed brother and sister-in-law. Christopher Plummer scowls and snarls wonderfully as the not-to-be-trifled with Monsignor.  arl Urban is diabolical as the vampire hybrid Black Hat.  Lily Collins dominates her scenes as the tearful but spunky kidnap victim; she has a truly magnetic screen presence which is remarkable for such a young actress. Maggie Q is beguiling as the Priestess, all suppressed passion and martial prowess.  am Gigandet is the weak link in the cast, not terribly convincing as the young hot shot Sheriff who waffles unreliably between cool swagger, fearful awe, and uncontrolled anger with no consistency.

“Priest” may not be the classic “The Searchers” is, but it is still an enjoyable film.  In an era where so-called horror movies try to either turn the audience's head with vampires as romantic heroes or turn the audience's stomach with gut-wrenchingly graphic deaths, “Priest” is uniquely derivative, borrowing shamelessly from classic movies.  And that is what puts this horror movie a notch above its competitors in the genre.

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