Long before Paul Bettany was Vision, the English actor wore the cloak of a different comic book superhero. While this forgotten movie doesn't seem to take full advantage of its $60 million budget, it's a surprising gem with a pretty enviable cast.
Priest, a dark sci-fi action movie from director Scott Stewart and based on a popular Korean comic book (manwha) from Hyung Min-woo, is the movie you need to stream on Netflix before it leaves on November 30 in the U.S.
Loosely based on Hyung's comic about a gunslinger of the cloth, the movie Priest takes place in the distant future of a universe where humanity went to war with beastly vampires. To combat the bloodsuckers, the Church weaponized an order of warriors called Priests, who specialized in hunting vampires.
But with the war over and vampires banished outside human cities, Priests were discharged and left to fend for themselves. One unnamed Priest (Paul Bettany) rebels against the Church to take up arms once again when his niece, Lucy (a pre-fame Lily Collins) is kidnapped into vampire territory by another former Priest, known as Black Hat (Karl goddamn Urban). Also starring in the movie are Christopher Plummer and Maggie Q, as a Priestess who aids the Priest in his mission. (These Priests, uh, really need names.)
Heavy on action but light on plot and characters, Priest squanders its $60 million budget. Its chief design and black and steel blue color palettes mimic the dark genre films of the 2000s, like Blade, Equilibirum, and the Underworld series.
Released during the first wave of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, Priest feels like the last breath of a dying era. It also hit during the release of Twilight, which is probably why no one remembers this unusual take on vampires. In Priest, they're primal beasts quite unlike Dracula, Edward, and other aristocratic undead.
What Priest has instead is style. There are crucifix shurikens, easy-to-DIY cosplay, and a whole lot of wire work. While not strictly a martial arts movie, it shoots and choreographs action better than more expensive Hollywood films. It's not exceptional, but it's solid, and it's a genuinely fun surprise to discover its competence.
And then there's Bettany, the movie's skeleton key and an unlikely choice to lead an action movie. Pale and lanky compared to Dwayne Johnson and not conventionally charismatic like Robert Downey Jr., Bettany brings gravity to a featherweight script. The WandaVision star fits the material like a glove given the diminished social status for Priests in the movie's mythology. You believe he's an exiled exterminator because he just looks like a weirdo creep with a face tattoo. You instantly get why moms don't want kids talking to him in an elevator.
What you've got in Priest is a deceptively pro-Christian masquerade (and a broad parable about the U.S. government's abandonment of military veterans) where Bettany knows how to get you on board with him and not his faith. It helps that the movie ends with Bettany literally walking away from the Church. (The movie, for better or worse, doesn't wink at any of the other million problems that plague Catholicism. If it weren't for the movie's ample crosses, apocalyptic theocracy, and a handful of Bible quotes, Priest would be pretty agnostic.)
Priest is also doing the Lord's work employing Karl Urban, a genre favorite whose face has been everywhere, from Middle-earth to the USS Enterprise. I'm in the midst of catching up with the rest of the world when it comes to The Boys, and it's novel to see Priest make Urban an actual bad guy, as opposed to a roughneck anti-hero. In another universe, maybe Urban should have been the Priest and Bettany the Black Hat, but this timeline ain't so bad either.
If Priest feels derivative, well, it's by design. In interviews, Hyung expressed admiration for dark fantasy and western horror — genres familiar to the west (such as in Stephen King's The Dark Tower) but not so to mainstream Korea.
“It’s a kind of homage to my favorite underground culture," he told Korea Joong Ang Daily in 2011. "There are many films [in Korea] with zombies and devils as protagonists these days but it was hard to find movies like that back in the 80s and 90s."
Hyung's love for westerns and horror allowed his Priest to stand out as a comic, but as a Hollywood movie, its touchstones reduce Hyung's work into something familiar and unimaginative. One wonders what Priest would have been like if it closely stuck to Hyung's Old West setting (it was the filmmakers who set the movie in a far-flung future, claiming it to be a "sequel" to Hyung's story). But that just made Priest look so many other dystopian sci-fi movies of the previous decade. Meanwhile, westerns made a compelling comeback in works like No Country for Old Men. What if Priest stayed true to its roots (and its original story about evil angels) instead of chasing trends?
It's a shame we'll never find out, as Priest made just barely enough in the global box office ($78.3 million) to scare away a franchise. But Priest stands on its own merits despite its flaws. As a one-off distraction, it's hardly a sin.
Priest is streaming now on Netflix until November 30 in the U.S.