The religious horror/action flick seems to be on its way to becoming a genre of its own. We’ve had “The Book of Eli,” “The Rite,” and of course “Legion.” Paul Bettany and Scott Stewart, star and director of that last blasphemous romp through biblical imagery, have teamed up again to give us this week’s “Priest.” Unlike their previous collaboration, which had a completely original script written by Stewart, this new film is based on an earlier series of Korean comics. Written by Hyung Min-woo, the popular “Priest” manhwa included 16 volumes before ending in 2007. This week I read eight of these books, and after finishing off that first half I can say that a faithful adaptation, with some creative screenwriting and editing, could easily turn into an interesting and gripping action movie.
I’m not particularly familiar with either the world of American comics or Korean manhwa, but I’m well aware that many a critic has discussed the ease with which this particular art form lends itself to movie adaptations. Comics are based on a series of visuals, not unlike shots, and your average graphic novel ends up being quite cinematic almost by default. Yet I think “Priest” is especially notable for its movie-like elements, more so than your typical well-made comic book. It almost begs to be adapted for the screen.
To start, even the interplay between panels of the comic is extremely cinematic. Not only is there an ease of movement from image to image in a single scene, but there is an extraordinary amount of jumping between characters, perspectives, and even time periods. The story is focused primarily on the Old West, as Father Ivan Isaacs does battle with the demonic forces of Temozarela and his minions. However, there are sequences set during the crusades, and there is a whole line of narrative which takes place in the present day. “Priest” cuts masterfully between these disparate epochs, tossing the reader across centuries without causing any real confusion. There is also an almost wistful manipulation of focus, cutting between characters in moments of heightened tension in a manner evocative of the best action sequences on film. Even within a single character’s perspective the panels switch between reality and dreams, narrative and imagination. And most importantly, the bulk of this skipping around is done through visuals, a crucial piece of cinematic style.
There’s also a fascinating nuance to the story that could really make quite the compelling addition to a growing genre that often falls flat. The basic conflict upon which “Priest” builds is a profoundly violent clash between a group of intensely powerful demons and the Catholic Church. Yet Ivan Isaacs, the priest who serves as the manhwa’s protagonist, is an anti-hero loyal to neither good nor evil. Having sold half of his soul to a fiendish fallen priest, he fights Temozarela and the forces of Satan exclusively out of the vengeance and compulsion. It’s a bit much, to be sure, but Hyung does a marvelous job of extending the exposition of this plot across the first few volumes of the manhwa as we get used to the characters and atmosphere. The moral ambiguity that comes with this troubled and deeply conflicted figure creates a remarkably uncertain mood. Once you factor in Ivan’s hellish rage, inhuman violence and equally puzzling devotion to a long lost love, the pieces are most certainly all there for a compelling action hero.
There’s also a wonderfully bleak aesthetic that goes along with the creative montage effect of the panels. True, some of the more excessive moments of bloody carnage would probably need to be toned down for a cinema audience, particularly in the US. But the barren landscapes and vivid architecture of both buildings and the natural Western skyline are already evocative of the great film classics of gun slinging. The hero himself is simultaneously imposing and gaunt, an unsettling combination of physical power and waiflike shadow. Added all together, the visual experience of the manhwa is one of jarring contrast and strangely appealing chaos.
Paul Bettany, therefore, is perfect casting. Capable of being both intimidating and exceptionally pale, the Brit is almost uniquely qualified to take on the role of Ivan Isaacs. Unfortunately, it seems that the character has been trimmed down quite a bit, even cutting the name down to just “Priest.” Not that there’s anything wrong with some minimalism, especially with a dark and mysterious role such as this, but the overall re-writing and reducing of the plot by the filmmakers worries me. Things already don’t bode well: the film appears to have a totally new plot, with entirely new characters and a reduced and restructured cast of villains. The strength of the manhwa lies in its nuanced darkness, both in form and narrative. If Stewart takes out much of the moral middle-ground on which his protagonist stands or attempts to simplify the central conflict to an easier good vs. evil division, the film will have lost much of the comic’s original appeal. On paper, “Priest” is the kind of richly designed work that would make an effectively murky horror/action flick. Let’s hope that’s what’s in store this weekend.