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Priest (2011)
Short, slick and vacuous.
7 May 2011
Based on the long-running Korean comic of the same name, Priest is one of those films that's been stuck in development hell for the last few years, running a gauntlet of director and lead actor changes and more recently, coping with a series of release date delays in order to facilitate the inevitably shoddy post-production conversion to 3D that's currently so beloved of mainstream cinema.

The added dimension isn't going to win any prizes - for the most part it is relatively pointless, and the world in which Priest takes place is not interesting enough to require any additional depth.

The ever-reliable Paul Bettany stars as the titular character. Stoic to the end, he's not your typical priest - more a deadly weapon, specialising in martial arts and weapons skills that make him the perfect killer. He exists in a time where vampires are a horrifying reality, battling humans for control of a conflict-ridden, barren wasteland punctuated only by large, soulless, church-controlled cities where humans live only for their faith and 'an honest day's labour'.

You don't watch films like this expecting an Oscar-winning tale, and action-wise, Priest is fairly solid, packing in a series of high-octane fights and chases for its duration. Helmer Scott Stewart knows where to put a camera in order to maximise the impact upon the viewer, and the oil-slick manner in which everything is filmed shows a director moving away from his previous field as a visual effects specialist and having a decent stab at mastering his craft.

Unfortunately, there's not a lot going on when knives and bullets aren't being flung around - the supporting cast of Cam Gigandet, Maggie Q and Karl Urban are given next to nothing to do and the dialogue serves only to move the film along to its next set-piece. Story-wise, it's paper-thin, and it's difficult to care about the motivation of any character when the levels of emotion on display resemble that of Mount Rushmore.

It is also strangely edited - 87 minutes is very short for a film with this kind of budget, and there's all manner of blunt cuts that give credence to the theory that there was once a longer, potentially better film here.

So, was Priest worth the wait? Not particularly, but for all its faults, it certainly has promise. Depending on box office performance, it could really benefit from a deeper, beefed-up sequel along the lines of Blade II. The good news is that there's plenty of source material available for a return to this mythology - it's just a shame that it's as shallow as the film it's spawned.
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Unstoppable (2010)
Solid as a rock.
8 November 2010
So, here we are. Tony Scott and Denzel Washington's latest collaboration is pretty much the definition of high concept - a runaway freight train loaded with thousands of gallons of diesel fuel, eight carriages of a highly toxic chemical and a worryingly curvy track ahead of it, versus two train operatives armed with little in the way of stopping impending disaster bar a one-car locomotive and their vivid imaginations.

It's not without its faults, but Unstoppable is a brisk, solidly entertaining thriller from start to finish. Scott has little time for characterisation or back story, preferring instead to kick things off via a pair of laughably incompetent rail yard employees roughly five minutes in, and then letting his leads fill in the blanks as we go along for the ride.

Washington and Star Trek's Chris Pine play it straight for the most part - their characters are the reluctant Johnny Everymen found in most films that rely on extended peril for thrills, and they've both nailed the mixture of brooding intensity and occasional comic relief that typifies movies of the genre.

Enough about the acting though - when you're watching a film of this nature, you want the action sequences to impress rather than worry too much about the story, and on this front Unstoppable delivers. Scott's track record in the field puts him in the perfect place to deliver the goods, and there's very little of the distracting, overdone camera-work that has plagued his recent output.

There's perhaps a little too much ShakyCam for my tastes but for the most part everything is shot with enough scope to be extremely impressive. The near total lack of CGI means the film looks suitably gritty and the pace is utterly, utterly relentless - there's no time to breathe here, just set-piece after set-piece with only brief conversational respites to quickly set up the next danger faced by our blue-collar heroes.

This type of film never goes down too well with critics and you can predict the reviews already - yes Unstoppable IS cheesy, it IS forced, it IS derivative and has all the depth of a puddle, but if you want to switch your brain off for 100 minutes and sit back for a magnificently enjoyable slice of escapism, you couldn't do much better. Highly recommended.
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A massive surprise.
10 January 2006
Warning: Spoilers
Nobody makes movies like Running Scared any more. Five years ago, this film would've been toned down by whichever studio released it in order for it to receive the lowest certificate possible. Bravo, then, to writer/director Wayne Kramer for sticking to his guns and delivering one of the most uncompromising, memorable and downright brutal thrillers in recent memory.

Joey (Paul Walker) is a small-time mobster hired to dispose of 'hot' guns for his bosses. One of these weapons (with particular value over all the others) falls into the hands of his son's best friend and is used to startling effect. Here is where the real fun starts. Joey can find neither the child nor the weapon in question, and he has only 18 hours before either the police, the Russian mafia or his own employers catch up with him.

Walker is surprisingly impressive considering the strictly one-dimensional roles he played in movies such as The Fast And The Furious and Into The Blue. Here he plays Joey as someone well aware of his impending death should he fail, and throughout he is totally watchable and believable. No more will audiences giggle to themselves every time he delivers a dud of a line.

The story occasionally flags, particularly in the middle of the film, but Kramer is not afraid to play with the camera-work to keep the audience's attention - whip-pans, CSI-style extreme close-ups, super slow-motion, sepia filters and colour bleaching are all used to give the film a gritty and somewhat unique look - take, for instance, the kitchen shooting about half an hour into the film, played from multiple viewpoints in both forward and reverse.

The film's charcoal-dark tone may be too relentless for some viewers, and the paedophilia subplot could be considered as taking things one step too far, but as long as you've got a strong stomach and can face hearing lashings of creative swearing, there's a lot of enjoyment to be found here. Unbearably tense, visually inventive and superbly acted from start to finish, Running Scared is the first real surprise of 2006 - it pulls no punches and thrills from its excessively bloody opening to its foul-mouthed conclusion.
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