Comic book film adaptations dominate the theaters in all types now. From the grittiness found in graphic novels (300, Sin City) or the pulpy adventures based on the golden age strips from the 40’s and 50’s (Captain America, Superman), the two art forms are colliding into one for maximum profit. So it’s not odd to hear that last May’s early summer release, Priest, was different when it came to the original source material it was loosely based on.
Instead of a flashy Marvel comic, Priest is adapted from a Korean one, or a manhwa as they call it. The film was brutally torn apart by critics upon initial release and barely lit a flame at the box office; it just never seemed to connect with anyone at the theaters. But a Korean comic series isn’t a great idea to influence a blockbuster in North America to begin with.
If you watch Priest with no idea of what it’s about or the manhwa it closely follows, it’s a watchable film. Not a good one mind you, but with a breezy pace and a short runtime watching it on a lazy afternoon is easy enough. Set in a time when vampires and humans have been at war for centuries, Priest tells the tale of a forgotten warrior who has been tasked with living an isolated life in a bustling city after his battles have ended.
The war is over and all vampires are in controlled zones spread throughout the wasteland and humans reside in a futuristic utopia that’s run by the church in a military-extremist manner. Paul Bettany stars as a Priest, fabled killers who turned the tide of the war with their special abilities and weapons.
The beginning of the movies is somewhat interesting in its approach to the future, as the church uses its force upon the civilians taking refuge in the city by protecting them with fear. Not much time is spent on such topics, but the idea of daily confessionals in electronic booths being patrolled by armed guards is something worth exploring. The imagination is there, it’s just never explored.
Before Priest can establish its own identity and the extending world it exists in, the simple and unfortunately mundane storyline presents itself. Bettany’s niece is kidnapped by vampires and he must come out of pro-longed retirement to find her and kill the ones responsible. He disobeys the church along the way and partners up with a young sheriff and former priest (or in this case priestess) to battle the vamps.
Those who are tired of anything that has to do with vampires will be happy to see they are all CGI in this film; no pale teenagers with fangs at all. They appear as wolf-like creatures with snarling mouths and no eyes whatsoever. Though, relying on special effects to portray villains is not a great trait, and that rule applies to Priest as well. It makes the action scenes lose a sense of energy and conviction but at least everything is choreographed in a way that’s easy to have a handle on.
The story shuffles along at a speed that skips by any chance of character development or real dramatic moments. This is to be expected in action movies but Priest has elements of depth that could have been implemented. There’s no doubt that the manhwa it’s based on has countless provoking thoughts that could have been implemented to make the plot more than just a throwaway search and retrieve mission.
The same complaint applies to the acting, with everyone playing their respective roles as limited as it initially appeared on the script. Bettany in particular has the hard task of expecting credibility when his whole performance is a series of grunts and heavy scowls. His time as an action star is that of a dying star waiting to be extinguished. Hopefully he’ll appear in future movies where he’s allowed to express more emotion than just rare anger and deep voiced one-liners, because movies like Priest and Legion aren’t doing him any favors.
The Blu-Ray at least has features to extend past the short film length and redeems itself considerably through the extras. Deleted and extended scenes don’t add too much but the audio commentaries by the cast is insightful and engaging. They all openly admit the film was a failure and express their feelings on what they enjoyed about the experiences on and off the set together. It’s not the usual commentary and that’s what makes it fun to listen to, especially when the actors and directors are being honest.
The featurettes explore the world that was created in the film and what influences helped mold it. Looking at the weapons and vehicles displayed in the film isn’t terribly exciting, especially when they aren’t that inventive or deadly for that matter, but the making-of feature is interesting enough. Seeing the overall vision and tone the crew was trying to establish is appealing as is the multiple films they were trying to evoke. The Searchers is referred to a lot which also makes the production design that more interesting to watch.
The picture in picture bonus is the best feature by far though. Throughout the film it adds pop-up windows showcasing specific scenes and how they were filmed, interviews with the cast, concept art and photos. Although it repeats footage used in other features, the picture in picture is the best way to watch Priest because the behind-the-scenes footage enhances the experience.
Visually, the gloomy tone of the film and the excessive dark scenes that go with it are vivid and crisp in detail. Usually films on Blu-Ray dip way too low in light during dimly lit moments, thereby losing the quality along the way. But Priest looks exceptional from beginning to end. Either in a murky cave belonw ground or in the desert wasteland above, the colors are muted but that makes the dark tones pop in contrast even more. The gritty filter glossed over the screen helps the film maintain its ominous atmosphere as well.
The opening credits are great to look at as well, animated in a design that is both energetic manga and moody graphic novel. It makes you kind of wish the movie was made in this fashion or even compel you to grab the manhwa series to relish in the over abundance of illustrated gore. If there’s one major thing Priest has in its corner, it lies in the visuals and overall appearance of the film and the Blu-Ray makes this obvious.
Audio is above average as well. With the sound balancing loud action set pieces (with sharp effects and proper use of surroundS) and coherent lines of dialogue that are easy to distinguish, everything here sounds fairly good, with only a few weak spots.
Priest is a yet another comic book adaptation but it’s also one that tries to mix up multiple genres and ideas. However, it ends up being a muddled attempt at crafting everything it envisions into an ordinary action picture. It leaves behind all the visual imagery it creates, for fights with vampires and chases on motorcycles. It’s not as bad as it could have been and the Blu-Ray makes watching it even more accessible and worthwhile, but it’s still a missed opportunity. It’s proof that Korean comics are not easy to be adapted when the focus is off and imagination is not the driving force.
Priest relies on action to keep interest and doesn't use its imagination to keep the viewer engaged. Throw in bland acting and overall, the film is not that exciting.