In a ravaged future Earth, humanity lives in vast blighted industrial cities under the control of The Church. Walk-in automated confession booths line the streets, heavily armed soldiers enforce order, and the face of Monsignor Orelas (Plummer) advises the citizens to have faith from vast video screens towering overhead.
The world's blighted state is due to a centuries old war with a race of vampires, a war that was won by an order of warrior Priests. In the aftermath the remaining vampires have been locked away in "reservations" tended to by their human familiars. Fearing the power of the Priests, the Church disbanded the order and forced the Priests to fade into obscurity. However out of the blighted deserts comes a new vampire threat, it attacks a frontier family and abducts their daughter Lucy (Collins). It emerges that Lucy is the niece of a surviving Priest (Bettany). When he is told of her abduction by frontier lawman Hicks (Gigandet) Priest – we are never told his name in proper spaghetti western tradition - first asks for his authority to be reinstated by the Monsignors. When they deny him, and refuse to believe in the vampire threat, Priest becomes a renegade determined to find his niece, and should she have succumbed to the vampire plague, kill her.
This is, essentially, the plot of John Ford's The Searchers being used as the thinnest of narratives for a relentlessly paced action adventure film that whilst at no point threatening to be original, is presented with verve and conviction. Based on a Korean comic book and directed with style by Scott Stewart, Priest is a compendium of film references and steals. Apart from borrowing its plot from Ford, it by turns references: the spaghetti westerns of Leone and Clint Eastwood's High Plains Drifter, particularly in its duster and hat clad villain; Mad Max's apocalypse chic; Blade Runner's urban sprawl; martial arts action; 2000AD's Judge Dredd; and the legion of SF/horror themed Eastern comic book traditions. There are many, many more dips into the bag of cool genre stuff to be found in the film. Honestly, it's shameless.
What Priest lacks is any meat on the bleached bones of its references. The entire backstory is delivered in an (excellent) animated credits sequence, and from then on it's one action set piece after another. This is something of a shame, about a third of the way through it becomes apparent that the Priests have Jedi like superpowers. There is an intriguing hint that these powers of "focus" come from prayer, but this is not developed. Likewise the vampires backstory is almost entirety ignored, they are not human, live in hives, and have a Queen. Where do they come from? The vampire's bite does not turn a human into a vampire, but instead into Marilyn Manson clones. What these human familiars do for the vamps is never clear. Have the vampires turned the world into a wasteland, or is this a byproduct of the war against them? Again, no idea.
However, what Priest has in its favour is an unusually good cast growling sparse hard boiled dialogue (all nicked from Eastwood), great production design that combines western and eastern comic book themes, a terrific score from Christopher "Hellraiser" Young, and a relentless pace that culminates in a terrific action sequence with Bettany and allies first chasing, then fighting inside of, then on top of, then under, then on top of again, a vast desert-crossing train It is also in 3D of course. I remain ambivalent about 3D, and I was cross eyed by the end, of this but the film uses it well and the sun bleached and silver grey colour scheme suits the effects. There are still issues with ghosting and blurring, but overall this is one of the more impressive 3D films I have seen.
It will be easy to tear this fundamentally silly and humourless (unless you class a cameo from True Blood's Stephen Moyer as a vampire victim as humour) film apart but I found it a highly enjoyable ride. Derivative? Most definitely, but entertaining. It should be noted that although the film carries a 12 certificate in the UK, it is one of the hardest 12s I have seen. Whilst taking place in a stylised fantasy context, the action is relentless, and often surprisingly brutal.