Paul Bettany sports an impressive acting resume, often playing strong secondary characters. Among them are an albino monk (The Da Vinci Code), an abusive Southern father (The Secret Life of Bees), a British statesman (The Young Victoria), a seafaring doctor (Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World), a controversial scientist (Creation), a police officer (The Tourist) and a figment of the imagination (A Beautiful Mind).
In this screen adaptation of Min-Woo Hyung’s graphic novel, the British-born actor takes a central role as an unnamed priest whose natural killing abilities have been honed in the art of vampire extermination. (It doesn’t come easily, he says. It just comes.) But these aren’t those schoolboy bloodsuckers from Twilight. These faceless, slobbering creatures are hatched in cocoon-like, embryonic sacks and greedily devour anything with blood coursing through its veins—including chickens that are beheaded and chopped up with meat cleavers (seen on screen). The humans who ask to be bitten become vampire slaves.
When the film opens (after a bloody animated introduction), the vampires have been contained in reservations (much like the aliens in District 9). Under the harsh leadership of the church, the rest of the population has holed up behind city walls where they live in a dismal state of hyperreligiosity that demands frequent confessions through video conferencing. Out of work, the highly skilled priests (who are defined by a cross tattooed on their foreheads) are forced to find menial jobs in the community.
One night, Priest returns home to find a man outside his door. Hicks (Cam Gigandet who plays a vampire in Twilight) is the sheriff of an outpost that has just been attacked by vampires. However, to maintain their control over the people, Monsignor Orelas (Christopher Plummer) and the other religious superiors refuse to acknowledge the report. Among the captives is Priest’s niece. Forced to choose between family and the church, Priest follows Hicks to the outpost in search of Lucy (Lily Collins). In retaliation for his decision, Monsignor Orelas sends four of the former vampire fighters, including one woman (Maggie Q), to bring back the errant man.
Unfortunately while the film offers plenty of visual interest, the script begins to feel very familiar very quickly. Combining a futuristic setting (where nitro-fitted motorcycles are recharged by solar panels) with the pulp fiction of a Dime Western, the story, set to a thunderous, heavy score, also nails together a bushel of clichés from other genres as well, such as The Matrix, Star Wars, Clone Wars and Van Helsing. Both Priest and Hicks speak with a gritty growl that is either a nod to Clint Eastwood’s Dirty Harry or the result of too much blowing sand on the set.
Frequent bloody violence runs amok in this production (though sexual content is virtually non-existent) as characters are slashed, stabbed, impaled, shot and viciously beaten. While the brutality might be tempered ever so slightly by the fact these religious warriors are fighting a nondescript enemy, there is no mitigating the script’s negative attitude toward religion in general.
Given to a life of sacrifice and celibacy, Priest lives a lone and dreary existence in a bleak world. So bleak, in fact, that the Cullen clan looks positively delightful.