When Paul Bettany took on the role of the mad monk in The Da Vinci Code back in 2006, he may as well have signed a contract that said he would play every mad monk going on the big screen until the end of time and beyond. In fact, Paul Bettany is the proof that there is a Mad Monk Genre. In the old days, one would chuckle and say that British actors, stage-trained one and all, were tailor made to be baddies (preferably Nazis and baddies and – even better – Nazis and baddies with an outrageous accent). These days, one actor has fine-tuned this stereotyping to an astonishing degree and his name is Paul Bettany.
I saw Priest today. I do realise that was reckless and foolhardy and not entirely pleasant. Paul Bettany stars as the mad priest of the title who, just so we’re absolutely certain of his profession, has a big cross tattooed on to his forehead and clasps and kisses constantly a rosary wrapped around a dirty wrist. The story goes that the world had been nearly destroyed by an apocalyptic battle between vampires and mankind, who had been saved by a band of Warrior Priests. Once the vampires were defeated and confined to reservations, the Church had removed all powers from their warriors and left the priests to share in the revolting existence of everyone else in huge, dark and dank religious compounds.
But when Bettany’s family is attacked by vampires, who have somehow escaped and stolen his niece, Lucy, he joins forces with Lucy’s sheriff boyfriend Hicks (Cam Gigandet), who, unfortunately, isn’t even a little bit as interesting as the vampire leader Black Hat, because that leader is played by the ever gorgeous Karl Urban*. The Priest and Hicks have to rescue Lucy before she is transformed into one of these horrible bloodsucking monsters. The Church don’t care for this plan and send along some other Priests, including a Priestess (Maggie Q), to kill Bettany and thereby express their displeasure with his actions. Needless to say, the Priestess changes her tune when confronted with the epitome of mad monks, Paul Bettany.
When Priest hit the cinemas it was in 3D. I missed this and so I can’t comment on how awful the 3D must have been for a film as dark and dingy as this one. However, what I can comment on, is that in 2D it does look rather good. The sets are large and impressive – a mix of wasteland, dark cities and claustrophobic hives. The vampire monsters, however, aren’t half as frightening as those big, toothy critters in Attack the Block, although they did remind me of them.
There is little tension as the story unfolds because one does not care how it ends up. The mix of western and scifi could have been interesting but it doesn’t have a legend such as Harrison Ford to back it up. Instead it has Paul Bettany riding (repetitively often) on a kind of souped up motorbike through a desert, before fighting his way through endless tunnels alongside a sheriff who appears so gormless it is puzzling in the least to think how he got the job in the first place. It’s very possible you’ll end up rooting for the vampires.
Priest is based on a Korean comic and its creator Min-Woo Hyung was involved in the development of the movie, however there are divergences from the original story and it’s possible that these changes may account for some of the failings of Priest. It is possible, though, that I’m being charitable. Priest‘s director Scott Charles Stewart had worked with Bettany on a previous film, Legion. Of course, in that film, Bettany had played a minor diversion on the the mad monk, mad priest role – the mad angel.
Paul Bettany is, I remind myself, a fine actor. His role as the naturist and doctor in Master and Commander was superb, as was his Darwin in Creation. I remember him first for his fantastic performance as Geoffrey Chaucer in The Knight’s Tale and then there was his role as Charles in A Beautiful Mind. It is a real shame that an actor as good as Bettany is now making his way through a Hollywood career of mad monks and computer voices (Iron Man, Avengers). Bettany reminds me of Peter Sarsgaard. Sarsgaard was at one point, to my mind, at risk of being the American equivalent. Quality performances in Garden State, Kinsey, Jarhead, Elegy and An Education are offset by such film choices as Flightplan, Knight and Day and Green Lantern. However, Sarsgaard’s performances, whatever the film, are normally always worth watching. The same cannot be said of Paul Bettany. And that is a huge shame.
For all sorts of reasons, The Da Vinci Code has a lot to answer for.
*Plea to Karl Urban – please steer clear of American films featuring Paul Bettany. British films should be ok.