Since its reinvention as Sony’s genre label, Screen Gems has mastered the low art of the B-movie. The content is standard—vampires, zombies, and hot ass-kicking ladies—the budgets high enough for many effects shots but too low for many convincing ones, and the release dates calculated to attract young male viewers seeking something like a superhero movie. And now, the Screen Gems B-movie may have found its De Niro and Scorsese: with Priest, director Scott Stewart and star Paul Bettany come together again, following last year’s Legion, about angels turning against earth.
Priest also enlists Bettany to stand against supernatural hordes. Based, as the trailers boast, on the graphic novel, the film is set on an alternate earth, where vampire infestations have been beaten back by an unnamed church, humans live in walled-off cities, and the empty plains beyond serve as a sort of post-apocalyptic Old West. An order of priests once commissioned to fight off the vampires has been disbanded, though a council of monsignors still rules over the city.
Bettany plays one of these exiled vampire hunters, called Priest. When his frontier-dwelling relatives are killed by a vampire army and his niece is kidnapped by a mysterious human ringleader (Karl Urban), Priest defies the council (who insists that the vampire menace no longer exists), and leaves the city to rescue her, with help from a small-town sheriff named Hicks (Cam Gigandet) and a fellow vampire-hunter called, uh, Priestess (Maggie Q).
Like Legion story, this one sounds like a reasonable mashing together of genres. Aside from a few inert conflict points—if the order has been disbanded, why do the monsignors keep threatening to kick Priest out?—Priest doesn’t suffer from ridiculous storytelling (at least not any more than many B-movies). The plotting could almost be described as lean, if the pace wasn’t so lethargic. Though it runs a feature-length 87 minutes, Priest seems like an outline, and it’s about as exciting as one, too.
Stewart is a former special effects guru, and he directs like one: he knows how to assemble his shots and effects—strictly speaking, the movie isn’t poorly made—but has no idea how to enliven characters or generate viewers’ interest. In between vampire shrieks, most of the actors speak in hushed grumbles, if at all, allowing zero moments of manly chemistry between Bettany and the squinty Gigandet, who has spun one dull performance in a Twilight movie into an entire career as Screen Gems contract player (he’s done four of the company’s films in two years, as if Sony bought too many life-sized Cam Gigandet action figures and needs to unload them all as quickly as possible). The only actor who brings any sense of fun to the material is Urban, hamming it up in too few scenes and combining old-timey Western villainy with modern graphic-novel supervillainy.
It’s clear that Stewart loves the idea of the West, and his movie includes the requisite romance and menace. Legion was a bit of a Western riff, too, with a band of survivors holed up in a remote outpost. But twice now, the director has failed to engage with generic tropes or imagery in a meaningful way; as he treats every scene with deadly seriousness, the Western’s sense of adventure is lost.
Priest does manage some enjoyable moments, setting dystopian sci-fi, horror fantasy, and Western lawlessness in tension. The climax reconfigures the old hurtling-train sequence into a decent enough three-ring action showdown, with rooftop fighting, zooming motorbikes, and train cars full of gestating vamps. But 10 or 15 minutes of passable action can’t compensate for what is in the end a lack of B-movie pizzazz. Making action-packed Screen Gems series like Resident Evil and Underworld look better by comparison, Priest is a January movie dressed up as a pre-summer blockbuster. Even in January, it would be a sluggish disappointment.