Review by Mike Finkelstein
Paul Bettany has long since proven himself to be a strong and credible superhero movie star. Now, in 2023 (at the time of writing this review), we've seen him star in multiple Marvel Cinematic Universe films as the sentient A.I. Vision, after having voiced a similar character, Jarvis, in more films for that universe. He's an indelible part of the superhero landscape, as recognizable at this point as Robert Downey, Jr. and Chris Hemsworth. If someone were to say, "Paul Bettany is starring in such and such new superhero film," I doubt anyone in the know would even bat an eye.
A solid decade ago, though, the landscape was very different. Although already known for voicing Jarvis even back in 2011 (with the first Iron Man having come out in 2008), the money-making machine of the MCU was still gearing up. It would be another year until Marvel made $1.5 Billion with The Avengers, and longer still until Vision would be properly introduced in Age of Ultron. Having Bettany star in a comic book adaptation, functionally making him into a superhero, seemed like a weird, long-shot bet at best. The kind of long-earned credibility just hadn't been earned yet.
Not that Priest does itself any favors. Although not a low-budget production by any stretch (it was made for $60 Mil, back when that was a large number for Hollywood), the film still somehow feels cheap and unrefined. The film grasps to try and create a large, dystopian world that feels dingy and lived in, but it fails to really make the world real. It's populated by characters that feel like little more than stock, video game NPCs, and the whole thing had this strange, over-produced, completely fake aesthetic. Somewhere in the core of the movie you can kind of understand what the production was going for, but that very rarely comes out in the actual film.
For centuries, millennia even, humans and vampires were locked in a desperate battle. The vampires had the strength, the power, but the humans had the numbers as well as the sun. This led to a perfectly balanced war where both sides would suffer constant casualties but neither would win. That was until the priests were discovered, supernatural killers of all things vampires, and the tide turned. Suddenly the humans were in control of the battle, and they fought the vampires back until the undead scourge was little more than a few battered groups. These last remnants of the vampire race were forced to live in reservations, building their hives while they lived on scraps at the fringes of the wasteland.
Years later, the world has moved on. While most of humanity still lives in walled cities, safe against whatever threats might be out in the wasted blight that was our world, some people moved out to the borders, setting up towns and farms and other settlements, working to recolonize the world. One such family, though, finds themselves under siege when vampires suddenly arrive one night. They wound the farmer, Owen (Stephen Moyer), and his wife, Shannon (Mädchen Amick), and kidnap his daughter, Lucy (Lily Collins). This has the effect of drawing out the Priest (Bettany), as Owen was his brother. He has to search the wastes, with the help of Lucy's boyfriend, Sheriff Hicks (Cam Gigandet), and find Lucy, whatever it takes. But in the process he might just discover that the vampire are up to more than hunting and stealing children... they might just be preparing to start the war all over again.
When watching Priest it's pretty clear that the film has a whole lot of story it wants to tell. I would say that comes from the original Manga that inspired this film except the film and the comic have so little to with each other they make as well be considered completely separate works. The movie borrow the film's post-apocalyptic, Western-inspired setting but tosses aside the fallen angels that served as the villains of the piece in favor of more generic "vampires". Thus the film has to spin up its own backstory, it's own explanation for everything, and this leads to a lot of unnecessary fluff and fill as the film tries to explain it all.
Yet, despite this overwhelming amount of story, the film also feels incredibly shallow and under-baked. We get all the story setup in the first thirty minutes of the film and then the rest of the time is spent following Priest and Sheriff around as they search one generic set in the wasteland after another. They occasionally fight CGI monsters which are placed there simply to give the film its requisite action beats, but none of these moments really feel necessary to the story. The actual search for Lucy, finding her and saving her, could all be wrapped up in 20 minutes if the film would just get moving. It's a lot of padding without much of anything to really say.
Part of he issue is that the film lacks a strong villain for the heroes to fight against. Most of the movie monster are those generic vampires or their familiars. The vampires are CGI, faceless and generic creatures cranked out by a computer and lacking in personality. The familiars are better, human characters that serve the vampires, but they're dispatched quickly and add very little. The only character on the vampire side that makes any impression is Black Hat (Karl Urban), a former priest who was captured by the vampires and turned into an undead fiend. He's the leader of the movement to start the vampire war all over again, and he would be a great foil for the heroes if the film didn't relegate him to a train the whole time, off and away from the good guys. He doesn't actually interact with the heroes until the last section of the last act of the film, and by then it's just too late to care.
But then, the creation of Black Hat just raises more questions than it answers. From what we understand, once you are turned into a vampire you become one of the strange, eyeless, CGI creatures. Black Hat is clearly not just a familiar, but he's also not a true vampire. So... what is he? The mythology presented in the film doesn't really fit his creation. He's somehow vampire-human but there's no precedent for that in the film. Of course, that just gets back to the fact that the vampires in this film aren't really developed at all. Why do they live in massive hives? Why are they warring with the humans (who are, of course, their main food source). And why would the humans allow any vampires to live, even in reservations? None of this really makes sense when you try to stop and think about it for any length of time.
The one part of the film that does work are the priests themselves. This really comes down to two characters: Bettany's Priest and Maggie Q's Priestess. Priestess comes into the film around the halfway mark, one of Priest's former allies who helps him on his quest, and from the moment to two meet up the actors are able to invest in their chemistry. There's unrequited love here, a desire to be together even though their vows to the priesthood prevent it. There's so much not said between the characters, so much that exists in their performance between them, that they elevate the film (to a degree, at least). They aren't enough to really save the film, but any time Priest and/or Priestess is on screen, the film does get subtly better.
And the film is able to get by, to a certain extent, on goofy charm. There's something delightfully silly about a priest going out into a Mad Max wasteland, armed with superpowers and holy relics, to fight vampires. The film knows how to invest in that goofy charm, making for a watchably dumb experience that's hard to hate. It's not good by any stretch, and the action is more silly than interesting, but you have to give the film some credit for charm.
Still, the best thing that can be said about this film is that it proves Bettany would make a good superhero. He invests fully in his character here and manages to play a credible action star. This wasn't the vehicle for him -- this film is too dumb and too shallow to really be worth watching -- but he would soon enough be an indelible part of the superhero landscape. Priest is but a footnote in his career now but it's one that clearly illustrated the path the star would eventually take.