I’ve never been intimidated to do an review for a big Hollywood film because I have no illusion that anyone involved with that kind of movie would ever bother reading my review. But since I sat down with the Director/Producer team for Beyond the Mask, Chad and Aaron Burns, for a podcast interview (posting next week on the Brio Podcast) there is a possibility that they’ll see this, leaving me humbled in my attempt to review it.
This movie has a different distribution model whereby viewers have to buy tickets first and then the movie will come to their area. So you have to GO BUY your tickets NOW. I’ll be trying to get a group up to go see it here in central AL if you’re local, see the details at the end of this post.
The first thing I want to say is this: You should go see this Movie. I will say that to whomever will listen. Not because it will change your life or because it’s the best movie ever, but because if this movie has any measure of success then Chad and Aaron will make more films like it and they will get bigger and better. DeVon Franklin, a Christian Filmmaker who spoke at the International Christian Media Convention in Nashville last month, made an excellent point about this. He said that if Christian films are to ever achieve the scale and quality that we want them to be, we have to start voting with our pocketbooks; the more we go see films that reflect our values, the more the Hollywood machine will want to honor those values.
I didn’t go see God’s Not Dead, because frankly I’m not sure what movies like it hope to accomplish. They’re primarily reaching the people who are already plugged into a church and they don’t appear to be very entertaining. Having said that, making films is hard. I don’t think most people realize how much an accomplishment it is to have a produced a film with few noticeable production errors and a comprehensible plot, let a lone get it distributed and marketed to the point that the investors can at least break even. There’s no artistic medium quite like it, wherein you have to have millions of dollars to make a project happen. So I do not fault the folks at Pureflix for trying their best with what they have.
The Plot (a few spoilers here)
This film is a historical fiction. Like Ben Hur, the course of the plot follows characters who could have existed and just didn’t make it into the history books. The story centers around William Reynolds, an assassin who is finishing his contract with the East India Company. When he returns to Great Britain after what he thinks is going to be he last job he’s betrayed by his employer, Charles Kemp, played by John Rhys-Davies who is best known for his roles as Gimli in Lord of the Rings and Sallah in Indiana Jones.
Kemp attempts to kill Reynolds, but a traveling vicar manages to rescue Reynolds. The vicar dies in the process, but Reynolds takes the opportunity to start anew by assuming the identity of the dead clergyman. Reynolds travels on to the Vicar’s would-be new parish where he meets the beautiful Charlotte. Over a brief montage Reynolds and Charlotte fall in love, she believing him to be a pastor. Eventually one of Reynolds’ former assassin colleagues shows up and makes an attempt on his life. Reynolds kills him in the struggle.
Believing the last vestiges of his old life to be vanquished, Reynolds pursues marriage with Charlotte who insists he meet her uncle first. In walks, (BUM BUM BUUUUUUUUM) Charles Kemp, Reynolds’ former employer! Reynolds flees, this time aided by Charlotte’s servant, who is killed in the process and manages to give us a small heaping spoonful of the Gospel before he buys the farm. (Can this guy make an escape without a christian dying?)
Then we hit a time jump several months forward. Charlotte, Kemp, and (unbeknownst to them) William Reynolds have all moved to the American Colonies. Kemp, we find out, is part of a plot to stop the Colonies from declaring their independence. Meanwhile Reynolds has started working at a newspaper – the newspaper – the one run by Benjamin Franklin. Franklin is, as he’s often portrayed in films like 1776, a source of joviality as he offers both wisdom and comic relief. Reynolds, hearing about Kemp’s plot, puts on a mask and rides around the colonies thwarting Kemp’s every move. This culminates when Reynolds stops an attempt on George Washington’s life, but ends up being framed for the attack. Charlotte visits him during his imprisonment and they talk about Reynolds’ new found faith in Christianity through all this. They escape and prepare for the final confrontation with Kemp.
The Good & The Fun
Aside from everything else, this movie is actually pretty fun. It starts off en medias with an old map – I’m a sucker for old maps and en medias storytelling – and we immediately get a scene of two assassins taking out a ship-load of men from afar.
The fight sequences and action scenes in this film are really fun to watch. The consideration that was taken for the various fighting styles of the day is clear in the great technical approach to all of the fight scenes. The “priest-fu” action scene where Reynolds fights his former assassin partner in his clerical gear is a pretty great fight scene and the action sequences in the colonies are real fun as well. I’d say the film is worth going to see just because of these scenes.
The computer generated imagery in this film is phenomenal. Aside from the fact that it is the first Christian film to utilize this scale of CGI, it actually looks really good and works for the film. This is a huge deal and it begins to open up the door for many more films like this one to add scale and believability to their productions, but my readers won’t be shocked to hear me say that I’m most excited that it also opens up the door for more fantastic elements showing up in Christian films. (Hey Chad, if you’re reading this, have you ever read Frank Paretti’s book This Present Darkness? Cause I’ve got a connection to the guy who has the movie rights to it. . . just an idea.)
The art direction, set design, costumes et al were really solid in this film. These are elements that you often don’t notice if they’re done well, but can ruin a film very quickly if done poorly. We’re so used to big-budget period pieces nowadays that we don’t give a single thought to the fact that sets had to be built, costumes had to be sewn, someone had to think is everything that appears in the ‘mise en scene’ something that could appear in the 1770s? I’m not a history buff, but to me I wasn’t taken out of things by the look or feel of the film which is a big accomplishment by itself.
There’s explosions too and the ending has a really great sword fight, but I don’t want to spoil it for you.
I have to say that the casting and acting in this film is good. Many Christian films are hurt by poor casting (they often just get whomever is available) and bad acting. The cast members do a great job of conveying their characters through an action/adventure film that could’ve easily been cheesy, but instead comes off pretty well through the film.
William Reynolds is played by Andrew Cheney, who has mostly just been in other Christian films up to this point. He does a good job of handling the character. Yes, there are a few moments where his performance could’ve been more nuanced, but this was new territory for him, and he did a great job in that role. He plays the character believably and the audience likes him. (something Hayden Christensen never accomplished) He does good work in the fight scenes as well.
The person I’m excited to see in this movie is the female lead, Kara Kilmer, and not just because she’s a lovely lady. (side bar here,) I first came across Kara when I watched a few episodes of Hulu’s reality show If I Can Dream, a Real World knock-off wherein all the people in the house are trying to “make it” in the entertainment industry. I went back and re-watched an episode before writing this review and I do not recommend that show, I can’t believe I ever watched any of it. Kara was the one shining light in the midst of a lot of sleaze. Where all the other cast members were cursing at each other and taking almost any part that was offered to them, Kara was really looking to do good quality work while being a Christian. There was an entire episode that centered around her decision to reject a part because it required nudity. She said “My faith effects the decisions I make about my body.” It was a real struggle for her because she turned down her first real role because of it. She was highly criticized for it by the other folks on the show including a director that accused her of wasting time by bothering to audition. I have to say it worked out for her, she’s now on Chicago Fire, and is the only person from If I can Dream who seems to have really “made it.” Congrats, Kara, you rock. (end side bar)
Aside from her allowing her faith to inform her career choices, Kara also is actually a good actress and every scene she’s in is better for it.
The stand out in the cast is John Rhys-Davies, who is the only really recognizable face in the bunch. He helps bring some gravity to entire project and, playing the villain, helps make the threat to our hero seem real. Chad and Aaron said in our interview that he was fun to have on set, having war-stories from his vast library of work.
The supporting cast is all excellent as well. I really can say that there isn’t a weak one in the bunch. And I mean that. People who know me know that I can be pretty critical of acting quality in a film, but the dramaturgy (it’s a word, look it up) in this film is solid.
Room for Improvement
Ok, if Chad and Aaron read this I want to actually offer some constructive criticism and also say to my readers that the film isn’t perfect. I am both a student of Christian theology and of film, so I do have my own thoughts about this piece, but I do think that when the average person watches it you’ll have moments where you might think there was room for improvement.
I present these in hopes that if Chad and Aaron read this that they’ll consider it simply as it is, feedback from someone who really believes in what they’re doing and hopes that they’ll continue to work and improve. I also hope they’ll see that I realize what they’ve accomplished already is huge (much more than I have for certain) and quite admirable by itself. Having said all this, I like to be as honest as I can in my reviews so here goes.
The Christian element in this movie could be improved. I say this knowing that everyone who is trying to put overtly Christian themes in any film is blazing new trails. Whereas you can hire a fight choreographer and stunt man who has worked on a dozen films and benefit from his experience, there aren’t many films that are including this kind of dialogue, and even fewer who have done it well. As such everyone making Christian films is still trying to figure out how best to have faith elements in their film. But please keep working at it, despite what I’m about to say:
The weakest part of the film is Reynold’s conversion at the end. While the Christian elements are basically strong up to this point, I felt like this was a little abrupt story-wise. I would’ve appreciated him asking a few more questions about faith and showing a little more interest before that point as it had mainly been others talking to him about it without him having much struggle/discussion in response. Salvation is difficult to depict, however, and I applaud their efforts. The discussion on a person wearing “masks” is an interesting idea. I do think it could’ve been explored a little more thoroughly. Having said that, I really do appreciate that they obviously erred on the side of “not preachy.” That’s a big plus.
The weakest single line in the whole script is when, a scene or two after his conversion Reynolds is going to face Kemp and he simply says to Charlotte “pray for me.” I really appreciate the attempt at bringing a spiritual theme into this scene, but I think about some of my friends who have been Christians for years and how they have a hard time saying straight out “pray for me” without being prompted. For many, prayer is very personal and private, especially for a person so new in their faith. It’s an awkward and intimate thing and I think the dialogue there could’ve reflected that more rather than being so blunt. I liken this a little to a scene in a movie where someone who was just handed a sword for the first time in one scene and is suddenly using it like an expert in the next. A person who is young in their faith should almost have a scene like in a superhero origin story where the hero first gets his powers and is awkwardly breaking things, and messing up his room (e.g. either of the first Spider-man movies.)
The pacing of the story feels a little strange at times. While I wouldn’t say that the film was too short, it did come in a scene or two under the two-hour mark and I wonder if it wouldn’t have benefited from adding those ten minutes in. Personally I wanted to see more of his time working as a vicar, a funny-awkward sermon or an interaction with a parishioner to take a little more advantage of the fish-out-of-water comedy (A la Sister Act) and then a little more during his time as a masked hero in the colonies. I’d like to have seen his decision to put on the mask and some kind of allusion to the importance of it, since that is a major theme in the film.
Finally, I would almost classify this film as a steam-punk kind of fantasy – which I’m totally into, but it might bother some folks. Yes, Ben Franklin did manage to start harnessing energy and created the first battery around this time. Yes, there were assassins with primitive sniper rifles at this time, but this film requires a pretty sizable suspension of disbelief for someone who likes things to 100% realistic (or as I call it, “boring.”) If you go into this with the mind set that it’s going to be totally historically accurate then prepare to be surprised. It’s a historical fiction that reads a lot like National Treasure. It’s real fun, but if you were the kind of person who didn’t like The Patriot because of the handful of anachronisms in that film, then this might be a challenge for you.
I’ll say it again, you should go see this film. It could be the first of many other movies coming out that are in the action/adventure genre, but have an explicit Gospel message in them. I will be going to see it for certain and I’d love to meet up with you.
The film is only going to come to theaters where 50-70 people buy tickets (depending on the theater) So you have to go buy tickets if you want it to come to your area. So even though the movie doesn’t come out for a few more weeks you have to go BUY TICKETS NOW. I am trying to get a group up here in Montgomery. If you’re local you can look it up on the website by clicking here, entering Montgomery AL as your city and selecting the screening on Thursday, April 9th or just click here. Bring your family, your friends, your coworkers, or whomever you can find. We need to support this film.