Movie Review: “Priest”

Paul Bettany, voted “Most Likely to Wear a Cowl” at Drama Centre London, is a caped crusader once again in “Priest,”a mad mash-up of sci-fi, Western, sacrilegious  silliness and vampire movie.

What lifts it to “I’ve seen worse” status is the previous teaming of star and director Scott Stewart, who last gave us the archangel fighting off other angels fiasco “Legion.”

And then there are the wonderful antecedents that this graphic novel adaptation borrows from.

In an animated prologue, we learn of of the war between vampires and humans, of how The Church saved humanity by training a warrior caste of priests to fight the blood-suckers. The vampires were vanquished and packed into reservations. The Church became the all -powerful theocracy ruling over walled cities scattered across a “Mad Max” wasteland. But when a remote farm run by a fellow named Owen is raided, we know the “vamp-packs” are back on the warpath, and that somebody adapting this remembers “Stars Wars.”

And when a girl from that farm named Lucy (Lily Collins) is kidnapped, we know they were looking back to the movie that inspired “Star Wars” — the John Ford/John Wayne Western “The Searchers.” Lucy’s uncle, a former priest (Bettany) must hunt for her, joined by a boyish sheriff who might have been named Mr. Exposition. His costume makes Cam Gigandet come off as Indiana Jones with a badge, Indy before his voice changed.  The Priest will kill the girl if the vampires have infected her. In the best “Searchers” tradition, Sheriff Hicks aims to prevent that.

Lucy’s being held by the Black Hat, a most menacing vampire played by Karl Urban (“Star Trek”) in a modified Dr. McCoy drawl and Clint Eastwood’s Man with No Name duds.

“If you’re not committing sin, you’re not having fun.”

The quest is set as our heroes hunt through a production-designed-to-death landscape on the coolest motorcycles this side of “TRON.”

The omnipotent church hierarchy, led by Christopher Plummer, has become a literal “opiate of the masses,” as Marx once put it. They run everything, they’ve digitized confession, denied that “there’s a vampire threat” and ordered the Priest to leave his crucifix dagger and crucifix throwing stars at home.

“To go against the church is to go against God.” They even send other priests (Maggie Q among them) to bring him back.

The eyeless digital vampires are nothing special (think “I Am Legend”), but the trains, cities and technology of this alternate Earth are wonderfully industrial, dingy and detailed. The fights are old school “Bullet Time” riffs straight out of “The Matrix,” and dull.

Visual effects artist turned director Stewart played around with the casting (Brad Dourif and Urban share a scene, a mini “Lord of the Rings” reunion) and indulges himself in Western iconography to such a degree that you kind of wish he’d designed this movie, then found a better script to go with it. And maybe hired a better director to make the action come off. As it is, “Priest” is about five beads shy of a rosary.

MPAA rating: PG-13 for intense sequences of violence and action, disturbing images and brief strong language.

Cast: Paul Bettany (Priest), Cam Gigandet (Hicks), Maggie Q (Priestess), Christopher Plummer (Monsignor Orelas), Karl Urban (Black Hat)

Credits: Directed by Scott Stewart, written by Cory Goodman, based on the Min-Woo Hyung graphic novels, produced by Michael De Luca, Joshua Donen and Mitchell Peck.  A Screen Gems Release. Running time: 1:27

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