There’s something very telling about seeing a movie in the theatre. For all the annoyances that come with it (and I am so, so easily annoyed), a movie audience provides instant feedback and flavors the viewing experience.

Here are three viewing experiences in the theatre where I saw Priest. At a key moment, when a character is thrown from a train during the movie’s third act:

People behind me, at volume: “Oh DAMN!”

Me, under my breath: “Someone’s callsheet in the Mojave comes to an end.”

Dude to my left, at volume: *snoring*

Throughout this (spoiler-heavy!) review, know that the people behind me were utterly invested throughout, I was consumed with laughter throughout, and the dude to my left slept throughout. We all enjoyed ourselves. It’s that kind of movie.

It’s also the kind of movie that features a minute-by-minute travelogue of Paul Bettany’s overnight motorcycle trip across the desert, including a closeup of the NITRO setting, which is later used to explain how someone on a motorcycle can outrun a 200-mph train, atop which people are casually standing and having normal-volume conversations as an occasional breeze gently ruffles the hems of their coats.

In other words: shitmazing.

This movie is the other half of the truly unfathomable two-picture deal that someone in Hollywood made with director Scott Stewart, to which Paul Bettany inexplicably cleaved himself. The first of these movies, which I mention often, was Legion. I mention it often because it was one of the most terrible fucking movies I have ever seen in my entire life.

The good news is that Priest is nowhere near as bad as Legion.

The bad news is, that is not saying much, and I expect that Monsieur Bettany will be taking a little break from acting while his reputation recovers, because while he was not bad in this movie, this movie was bad.

Its first and biggest mistake is that, rather than trying to be the aces pulp film it could have been, it aimed high and fell apart. And by “aimed high,” I mean “completely stole.” The vampire’s hive guardian is a Peter Jackson cave troll, the city is so Blade Runner that one hopes Ridley Scott never sees it, and there are not one, but two direct visual-cue callbacks to The Matrix that we’re just going to pretend were an homage. There are more; we’ll get there.

However, it steals most from The Searchers, which you should probably be careful adapting (since so much of the movie is iconic, and so much of the rest of the movie grapples with racism against Native Americans, with varying degrees of success), but which this movie has no concerns about whatsoever.

Frontier massacre by hordes of monsters? Check, and also, yikes. War-veteran loner who was in love with his brother’s wife? Check. Long shots of travel across a lonely, barren wasteland? Dear God, check. Obsessive search for his niece, who’s actually his daughter, before the monsters “infect her,” with the understanding that if she’s already sullied, he’ll kill her? Check, and also, YIKES.

I mean, it’s one thing to rip off a movie that did it better. It’s a completely different level of questionable when someone says, “You know, white America’s relationship with the Native American community has always been sort of the worst, especially on film, and even movies like The Searchers that tried to engage that idea tended to misstep. We should be careful about that when remaking this movie into a science-fiction thriller. Why don’t we just make them all faceless vampires instead?”

And someone else says, “Good idea! Go with it.”

So then you get a bloodthirsty, merciless, literally-faceless horde who attack without warning, make traitorous “familiars” from people, cannot be reasoned with, were defeated in battle and consigned to Reservations (no, seriously), and who are now led by a man changed by the vampire queen into a “new breed” of vampire who looks like a man but is secretly a monster in his heart, and is our main villain. WELL DONE, MOVIE. Racism parallels: avoided!

(There are also some subtler things that somehow make this even worse, like when poor Karl Urban has to give his speech about how vampires are just what nature made them, and he’s looked into vampires and found that their souls are “purer” than the souls of people, and you just cringe until your entire body is grimacing.)


Paul Bettany, silently pleading with the viewer not to blame him for any of this.

Basically, Priest exists as an example of what happens when a team of creative people all get a concussion at once. And it’s unfortunate, because there are glimpses of some other movie within Priest that might have been worth watching. (I know! No one is more surprised than I am!)

I’m going to run down the plot in general, but first, please note that no matter how it sounds, I’m not skipping much – Priest has a remarkably brisk 87-minute running time, which keeps things going at a pretty decent clip. (It still does not explain why parts of the movie still felt so tedious. You only have 87 minutes; how many extended shots of people hunching over their motorcycles in the desert is there really time for? Answer: One hundred. Thousand.)

So, we open with a group of commando priests going into the big vampire hive (oh, p.s., the vampires build hives with spit, no biggie). Turns out it’s a trap! Priest Paul loses compatriot Priest Karl during the big escape as the vampires drag Karl down into the darkness right out of Paul’s hand (of course) and is presumed dead, because no one in Priest has ever seen a movie before.

Then is the exhaustive and nicely-animated credit sequence that does not explain how we got to Blade Runner levels of tech if we were constantly being preyed upon by hordes of vampires, and also how our Blade Runner tech somehow couldn’t kill them, and also how there continued to be so many vampires when the human population was nowhere near enough to sustain them all at any point so the population dynamic is totally askew, but this is not the kind of movie to which logic matters, so your job is to be like, “Graphic-novel vampire-fighting tanks! All right!”

Then come the Priests, who are either supernatural or well-trained commandos (this movie treats physics as suggestions rather than rules, so it’s honestly hard to tell which is the case), and who manage to round up the vampires into reservations (yikes) and now the whole world lives in a series of walled cities run by a totalitarian Church authority.

…except for the people who live in pioneer outposts, in which Vampire Bill, forced to use his American accent, sits down to dinner with wife Shannon and sassy daughter Lucy, who wears filmy, virginal gowns out for long walks in the Mojave desert. Then the place is attacked by vampires, and Lucy is shoved into the basement and told not to scream. To her credit, she doesn’t…until the trapdoor is opened and Karl Urban appears, and she realizes she’s going to be spending the rest of her scenes being scenery-chewed by the Ham-Off delegate. Then she screams her head off. I hear you, girl.

Zoom to BladeRunnerOpolis! The idea of a futuristic religious regime is interesting, but Priest doesn’t want you to get invested, I guess, because we get one shot of it — ONE — as Paul walks from his confession booth back home, where sunburned douche Cam Gigandet is waiting to exposit about the attack and how Shannon Who Only Got One Line in the Whole Movie didn’t make it and Lucy is captive now and he’s Going After Her in case Paul wanted to come.

NOTE: Cam Gigandet is terrible. His character is so useless than by the end of the movie they shunt him offscreen for ten minutes at a time.

Paul stares manfully out his window and declines, but of course less than five minutes later he’s been chastised by Christopher Plummer (WHAT ARE YOU DOING HERE, SIR), has decided to ignore that stupid advice and this stupid city where no one talks to him and all those stupid automated confessional booths, and has gotten the hell out of town on his motorcycle which was apparently never repossessed after the Priests were disbanded.

And so, the futuristic religious totalitarianism comes to an end, and we enter our Searchers remake.

[Travelogue ensues, complete with NITRO setting.]

When Paul reaches the outpost, he meets up with Cam (ugh) and goes to see his brother. (He also catches the attention of Brad Dourif, whose career playing slimy guys is never, ever affected by movies like these.)

At Bill’s bedside, we have a conversation so stilted I should have brought my Cliché Bingo card with me, and in which it is revealed that before the priesthood came calling, Paul and Shannon Who Only Got One Line in the Whole Movie were in love.

People Behind Me: “Oh SHIT.”

Me: “Wait until Lucy’s his daughter.”

Dude to My Left: *snore*

So once Bill expires, it’s off to the vampire reservation (YIKES) for a terrible action scene!

NOTE: There’s a production video of Christian Bale doing run-throughs for a scene in Equilibrium where he pistol-whips six guys. It’s actually marvelous to watch; Bale’s a quick study, and he looks like an action natural. In his action scenes, Paul Bettany looks like those dogs who are put in costumes and marched in big parades while they look around, wondering where their dignity went.

Meanwhile, Karl Urban seducto-smarms his way through a couple of scenes with Lucy on the high-speed train. It’s B-movie push-button, from “I’m keeping you in that cage for your own safety” to “With your help, I’ll rule this world!” to “Have you ever had delicious duck and fresh fruit served with a side of Really Sharp Easily-Stashed Knife?” Turns out Lucy is smarter than she looks, since she doesn’t eat anything AND takes the knife, though it must be tough going when you’re doing Sincere Scared-Face and Karl Urban is contentedly gnawing scenery just across from you.

After the reservation fight, Cam and Paul head out to the vampire spit palace for another endless scene of looking around corners being scared — rescued from tedium by the arrival of Maggie Q! She says she’s been deputized to kill Paul, but is mostly glad to be in the trenches again and has no intention of doing anything but kicking vampire ass.

NOTE: At no point in this movie does she strategically tear her clothes and/or need rescuing. Bonus!

(There is a quiet scene where Paul and Maggie have a conversation about how hard it is to be a distrusted, lonely, damaged veteran of a war. It is followed by a scene in which Maggie throws rocks over her head so that Paul Bettany can use them as stepping stones as he climbs into the air to fight a cave troll. This is how this movie goes.

People Behind Me, during the rock-stairs: “What the hell?” YOU SPEAK FOR US ALL, PEOPLE BEHIND ME.)

On the Vampire Train, Brad Dourif, whose jalopy apparently ALSO outpaces a 200-mph train, mentions to Karl that he saw Priest Paul in town. Karl kills him. It’s so pointless that I have to think the actors asked for the scene because they wanted to have coffee and catch up.

Our three heroes realize the vampires have abandoned the hive to attack a town called Jericho (of course). After one more scene in which Paul Bettany and Maggie Q act regretful and romantic as fast as they possibly can before Cam Gigandet enters the frame again, it’s time to load up and head out.

Spoiler: they are already attacking. They began at the Little House on the Prairie, where a lady in a no-shit actual pioneer bonnet is listening to a nice round of Dies Irae with her husband, like you do when you are relaxing from a hard day. They are eaten by vampires, like you do when you are in this movie, as Karl Urban walks through the streets conducting his invisible symphony, like you do when you are in a Ham-Off.

The next morning, the three heroes roll up on their hovery motorcycles into the abandoned, smoldering city. It’s so “Uncle Owen? Aunt Beru?” that I can’t even. They finally figure out that the 200-mph train, currently headed towards BladeRunnerOpolis, is a vampire delivery system.

Paul tells Maggie to get ahead of the train (NITRO SETTING) and blow the tracks. He tells Cam to go into the train and find Lucy. Cam, who has spent the movie asking expository questions in the worst monotone ever (yes, Priests are celibate, yes, Paul plans to kill Lucy if she’s a vampire, yes, it’s vampire spit, quit being a baby), swears to rescue her. He then proceeds to wake up all the sleeping vampires (who look awfully similar to the vampire embryo pods in Van Helsing) and let Lucy get dragged away from him completely. Action hero!

Dude to My Left: *snoooore*

People Behind Me: “Punk.” (I enjoyed the people behind me.)

Then Karl and Paul go to the top of the train for an action sequence that looks like a couple of marionettes being swung around at random, on a train that is supposed to be going 200mph, then they fall back into the train? (I was distracted by the people behind me, who were transported at every moment and narrating the fight blow-by-blow, and I missed some of the timeline.) Karl says they should rule the city together as vampires, just because it sounds cool, I guess? During this whole fight scene Karl is basically phoning it in from a different time zone, so none of it really sounds like that great an idea.

Lucy gets dragged in so that his fight scene has some stakes (no pun, I swear), and as Paul is getting his ass handed to him, Lucy pulls out her steak knife and tries to get a shot in. Pleasantly, when Karl Urban Palpatines that her reflexes are quick, JUST LIKE HER FATHER’S, Lucy hesitates for one second while she processes, then shrugs it off and goes back to knifing Karl. Priorities!

Meanwhile, Maggie Q outpaces the train (NITRO) and faces off against the bad guys who were waiting inside the train on motorcycles just in case (?), and catch up to her as she’s loading the tracks with dynamite. That was 90 seconds of actual fun!



Too bad one of the hurtling corpses breaks her detonator. Whoops!

Meanwhile, in the train, Karl drags Lucy atop the train and Ham-Off hypnotizes her so he can make her into a vampire (even though the vampire queen made him, so I don’t know if transference works that way or what, but I guess this movie has bigger problems). She swoons in his arms and he cradles her close and I feel like we missed an entire subplot about these two heaving their bosoms at each other, but before anything happens Paul shows up and Lucy falls off and he grabs her hand and they dangle off the train making hilarious facial expressions. Weirdly, Karl Urban does not take this moment to remind Paul of the last time he tried to hold on to someone he was trying to save, leaving a single square of my Cliché Bingo card horribly empty forever.

Somewhere that nobody cares about, Cam Gigandet falls off the train.

Then Paul sees that Maggie the problem-solver has strapped all the dynamite to her motorcycle and is driving it right into the train. I like someone with her eye on results.

Then she hits the train, and everyone jumps nimbly to safety, except superhuman Karl Urban who is incinerated immediately, and it’s all so poorly done that it took me a full ten seconds to realize that had been the big fight, and Karl Urban wasn’t going to emerge from the flames and continue the plot. He is, in fact, completely dead, and his black hat floats to the ground at Paul’s feet (of course). Paul is busy waking up his daughter by stroking her face and running his thumb over her mouth. You know, the normal way you wake up your daughter. (He can’t help it; that’s just what happens when his eyes are open.)

(At some point, Cam Gigandet rides up on a motorcycle. The people behind me laugh. That’s about right.)

Anyway, Paul Bettany goes back to BladeRunnerOpolis and warns the people about vampires (of course) and that they’re free and still out there (of course) and then he and Maggie Q meet up outside the city limits to keep fighting vampires in a transparent bid for a sequel, THE END.

What I have taken away from this movie is that Scott Stewart should never make another movie, because the world just doesn’t need that. However, Paul Bettany and Maggie Q should do another movie together, and it should not be anything like this one.

But the most important thing I learned from this movie is that Karl Urban does not care what the hell you ask him to do any more; he will Ham-Off his way through anything you want him to. Watch out, Richard Roxburgh: he’s coming for YOU.