Saturday, May 14, 2011

Vapid pseudo-spiritual schlock

What hath The Exorcist wrought?

It's usually foolish to trace a cinematic trend back to its exact beginnings -- someone will always chime in and say that the movie you've chosen as your starting point was actually influenced by films X, Y and Z.

But I do think we owe our current spate of pretty looking, religion-themed action films to William Friedkin's The Exorcist, in which a heroic priest tried to expel the devil from the body of a young girl.

Only, The Exorcist was a brilliant classic, and the legion (pun intended, see later) of films influenced by it, in which the spiritual world hangs in the balance, are becoming increasingly hackish and insipid.

I've tried to be fair about prejudging the new releases I write about each Friday, but sometimes you can just tell a film is going to be bad -- or at least, that it comes from a bad or tired place. It seems to me that Priest, releasing today, is such a film. Starting with that poster, it looks over-dressed and under-thought.

Part of my instant impatience with this film is that it feels like even more of a retread than most, in the sense that star Paul Bettany was just involved in a terrible version of this type of film last year: Legion, which Scott Stewart also directed. In Legion, it's the apocalypse, and God has reappropriated his angels for the purposes of wiping the human race from the face of the earth. One good angel (Bettany) needs to fight the rest of the bad angels in order to prevent this from happening. The movie was ridiculous.

But movies like this have been coming at us for awhile -- movies where it basically boils down to God vs. the devil, with a lot of nice art direction and some supposedly cutting edge fight choreography thrown into the mix. Max Payne was kind of a movie like this (though it was hard to figure out what that movie was supposed to be about at all), and before that, it was Constantine. And Constantine wasn't even the first time Keanu Reeves appeared in a movie like this -- The Devil's Advocate is kind of one of these movies, too.

I suppose if you want to be generous to Priest, you could call it a vampire movie rather than vapid pseudo-spiritual schlock. But the fact that the title character is a priest, and that vampire movies always carry with them a religious undercurrent (you can kill them with a crucifix), means that the distinction may not be very meaningful. What positions it firmly as the type of movie I'm talking about is all the window dressing: the futuristic cityscapes, the goofy-looking motorcycles, the goofy sunglasses, and the crucifix painted down the middle of Bettany's face. Um, question: If you're a priest who hunts vampires, do you really want to advertise that to all the vampires by painting a cross on your own face? (The movie probably has an explanation for this, but I don't care.)

If I had a bit more energy today I would dig for other examples of this type of movie and why they are getting increasingly worse. See, I don't want to give the impression that they're all bad -- I actually had a limited fondness for Constantine. But especially with Priest, they've gotten ghettoized to the point that they're little more than marginal stories draped over some superficially cool iconography.

Don't be fooled by the May release date. This type of movie belongs in February, and it deserves to fail in February.

Okay, back to being fair and impartial -- for the most part -- with the May 20th releases next week.

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