***/**** Image A Sound A Extras B
starring Paul Bettany, Karl Urban, Cam Gigandet, Christopher Plummer
screenplay by Cory Goodman, based on the graphic novel series by Min-Woo Hyung
directed by Scott Stewart
by Walter Chaw I'm completely unfamiliar with the Min-Woo Hyong graphic novels on which visual-effects guy Scott Stewart's Priest is based, and the biggest surprise of the picture isn't that the guy who did the abominable Legion managed to make something so watchable, but that Priest made me want to track down Hyong's work. Before seeing this movie, I just sort of assumed that the comic was another weird west thing along the lines of Vertigo's Preacher; after, I'm led to believe that it's a canny little mélange of cyberpunk, weird west, and horror comics, with some solid Ghost in the Shell manga tossed into the mix. There's not a minute of the film, mind, that's without a clear antecedent--not one second that passes without a namecheck of not only stuff like Blade Runner (on the "Final Cut" of which Stewart served as an uncredited techie during his time at ILM) and, most obviously, Alien/Aliens, but also The Searchers as tortured, titular Priest (Paul Bettany) declares that if his vamp-abducted niece Lucy (Lily Collins) becomes infected, it would be his pleasure (?) to dispatch her.
Set post-apocalypse and probably in an alternate universe as well, Priest depicts a mankind driven behind walled cities where absolution is bought in automated confessionals (shades of THX-1138 in particular, Orwell in general). Vampires have been largely eradicated, the rest oublietted into a few "reservations" tended to by human familiars and ignored by a general population that seems content to live under the iron thumb of authoritarian Monsignor Orelas (Christopher Plummer).* It's one of the many instances in which the film abandons reason to reach for an obvious point, but it's that complete lack of artifice that has me wondering whether this suggestion that the vampires are animalized like Native Americans were in the American West is actually something that's not an accident. I'm also willing to forgive the endless time spent watching Priest ride his solar-powered motorcycle with sidekick Hicks (Cam Gigandet) across the desert, because Priest appears to have in mind the plight of veterans returned from meritorious service without a place in the society they've protected. Heady stuff for a pulp, you'll agree, bolstered by the fact that these Buffy the Vampire Slayers have a red cross tattooed across their face like a scarlet letter denoting their outcast-hero status.
Stewart, seemingly relaxed from his "let's put on a show!" Legion, delivers a few smart, almost iconic set-pieces of evil head-half-human vamp "Black Hat" (Karl Urban) leading the slaughter of an entire town from a lonely frontier way station and of Priestess (Maggie Q) tracing across a desert along a rail-line, which ultimately provides a nice reminder that, at the end of the day, I'd really like to see another George Miller-directed Mad Max movie. Indeed, one lovely sequence proves that the picture knows the words if not the music as it fuses elements of The Road Warrior, the birthing chamber sequence from Aliens, and the train assault from Once Upon a Time in the West. Priest is not nearly as good as any of those films, of course, but at least it has its priests pause to pray in preparation for every round of vampire-slaughter--and sets itself up for a sequel that, should it ever happen despite the way this thing was dropped (sans critics' screening) like a used tissue in the doldrums of early summer, will probably go directly to video. It may not be great, but it's pure, and it deserved better.
THE BLU-RAY DISC
by Bill Chambers Shot in 'scope on 35mm, Priest arrives (unrated) on Blu-ray from Sony in an ultra-fine-grain 2.40:1, 1080p transfer, the tack sharpness of which demonstrates just how much anamorphic lenses have improved in recent years. Outside of Genndy Tartakovsky's splashy animated sequence, the image is fashionably desaturated and drained of colour from the red end of the spectrum especially (the crimson Screen Gems logo is here metallic blue), but within its mostly-teal palette there's an impressive dynamic range. Sun-baked tableaux manage to feel hot without ever blowing out the whites, while blacks are deep yet transparent. The accompanying 5.1 DTS-HD MA track announces itself as a winner early on, when a vampire attack is depicted entirely as a discrete surround-sound experience that genuinely gets under the skin. If the mix itself is a little white-noisy at times, crispness and depth prevail more often than they would, I suspect, in a lossy rendering of the same material.
Providing another listening option, a feature-length commentary reunites actors Paul Bettany and Maggie Q, director Scott Stewart, and screenwriter Cory Goodman. Someone asks early on "Why no cell phones?" in the retro-futuristic world of Priest, a question that proves rhetorical; throughout, rewrites, preview versions, and cutting-room innovations are candidly discussed, with Sam Raimi's editor Bob Murawski receiving special praise as a latecomer to the project who instituted structural changes that made the film more linear. I like the final image of Black Hat's hat being referred to as a "Rorschach test" that for some confirmed the character's demise and for others meant he was still alive. As for a definitive answer, "We'll leave it to the sequel gods to decide," Stewart says.
"Bullets and Crucifixes: Picture-in-Picture Experience" contains more dead air than the yakker and consists of lengthy but not necessarily in-depth talking heads, such that when all this stuff gets consolidated in two making-of featurettes--"The Bloody Frontier: Creating the World of Priest" (13 mins., HD) and "Tools of the Trade: The Weapons and Vehicles of Priest" (11 mins., HD)--it doesn't really feel like anything of value's been sacrificed. Considerably more is made of the film's debt to John Ford, specifically The Searchers (a debt underscored in an alternate ending that apes its famous bookend shots), than to the graphic novel series on which Goodman's script is allegedly based, and we learn that the phrase "brutal functionism" was coined to describe the movie's props, including a blade fashioned from Damascus steel that took 100 hours to sculpt for a few seconds of screentime. The 13-minute batch of "Deleted and Extended Scenes" (SD and letterboxed within a 4:3 frame, which appears to be a Screen Gems trend) leans heavily towards the latter, with one bit tacked onto Priest's final confrontation with Christopher Plummer's Monsignor that is the steampunk equivalent of a slow-clap. HiDef trailers for Insidious, Battle: Los Angeles, Arena, Bad Teacher, and Just Go With It cue up on startup and round out the platter. Sony is simultaneously releasing Priest on the 3D Blu-ray format.
*Tackling broadly, if clumsily, the hypocrisy of religions that place the church before God, Priest has going for it the same simplicity of its gonzo belief as the similarly interesting The Book of Eli.