About once a year, a film is released that forces us to ask the question: "Is this the movie that will finally make Paul Bettany fire his agent?"
Bettany, an actor with good range and a natural presence onscreen, has nevertheless been slogging through a succession of embarrassments in the past half-decade: as the steely bad guy in Harrison Ford's Firewall, some sort of conjurer in the mostly ignored Potter-esque dragon fantasy Inkheart, and as an ass-kicking angel in the resolutely stupid Legion. And he's not an actor who works in films very much.
Now there's Priest, a schlocky vampire-hunter movie that sets a new standard in disbelief-suspension, if nothing else.
The worst part of all of this is the fact that Bettany has been great, as comedic relief in the not-terrible A Knight's Tale, in A Beautiful Mind, as Charles Darwin in Creation, and in the shamefully overlooked Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World. The reason he now seems stuck in roles that should only be court-ordered for a man of his skills is The Da Vinci Code: He played a creepy, self-flagellating albino monk in Code, and it could be that taking similar roles in lower-profile movies since has inured him to the dreck that litters his filmography these days.
Priest takes absolutely no advantage of Bettany's abilities, nor does it put Karl Urban (Star Trek) to good use. It's supposed to be an adaptation of a South Korean graphic novel, and if it's a literal adaptation, that's one awful graphic novel. There is a wink to the story's origins early on, an animated sequence that lays out the story of how we got here. Star Wars had the iconic "galaxy far, far away" scroll, and Priest has this hip cartoon. Unfortunately, it's also the film's signature moment; Priest is never better than when it's not the movie at all.
The cartoon sets the stage: Man and vampire have been at war forever. These aren't the vampires of Bram Stoker novels or Stephenie Meyer toss-offs; these things are all sorts of freaky and not human at all. Eventually, "The Church"—an unnamed surrogate in a lot of ways for the Catholic Church—locks up the remaining vampires in maximum-security reservations. To ensure their own safety, mankind builds walled cities hundreds of miles from the reservations, and, apparently, everything else is a desert.
After the war, the Church had no need for these warrior priests, and neither did the rest of society. Then, out of nowhere—and out in the middle of nowhere—a vampire attack slaughters a family and results in the kidnapping of its fetching daughter (Lily Collins). The local sheriff (Cam Gigandet) is in love with the girl, so he does what any stupid movie character would do, especially an armed one: He doesn't pursue any trail he might find, no. Instead, he loses a ton of time and tracks down the nameless priest (Bettany), who just so happens to be the girl's uncle. There's bit of The Searchers there, with every conceivable apology to the great John Ford.
The priest and the lawman head out into the desert to find the girl and slaughter some vampires. Along the way, they cross paths with another priest (Maggie Q), and evidence mounts that the mastermind of this little plot might be Black Hat (Urban), a kind of human/vampire hybrid.
Between teen novels, TV and film, the vampire business is overdone. The only good thing to emerge from all of it has been the new directions in which authors and filmmakers have taken bloodsucker lore, expanding the universe into uncharted territories. That's always a plus, even if the end result of each experiment might not be worth remembering.
This is not Night Watch, director Timur Bekmambetov's bold Russian vampire epic, but Priest does deliver vampires in a new way and gives them a fresh history. It combines few traditions about vampires and is more like Ridley Scott's Aliens invading a Sergio Leone movie—or, more accurately, knock-offs of each. It's an odd mix, but the genre has worn itself slick by sticking with more-traditional stories. It's just that Priest's execution of that setup is bland, monotonous and not even slightly entertaining.
Cam Gigandet is a good-looking guy but a real lightweight; taking him seriously requires a great deal of flexibility. Karl Urban hisses from behind the safety of shadows most of the time, but even he doesn't seem to be having much fun, which gives him something in common with the audience.
Bettany's priest could be portrayed by just about anyone, and he isn't exactly suited for lone-avenger roles, anyway. He never has a monologue, which is a bit of a waste, because it would actually play to his strengths, and he is never required to show an ounce of emotion. You'd think that knowing he's trapped in another in a long line of regrettable religio-babble movies would at least force a small crack of desperation onto his face, but no.
That shows you just how good an actor he can be.