Beyond the Mask Will Delight Families, but Not Critics
- Debbie Holloway Contributing Writer
- Updated Sep 11, 2015
DVD Release Date: September 8, 2015
Theatrical Release Date: April 6, 2015 (Initial); June 5, 2015 (Wide)
Rating: PG for action, violence and some thematic elements
Genre: Action, Drama
Director: Chad Burns
Cast: John Rhys-Davies, Andrew Cheney, Kara Killmer
“And you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free” (John 8:32).
A promotional poster for Burns Family Studios’ new film Beyond the Mask features the above Scripture reference, along with a tagline proclaiming, “Let True Freedom Ring.” It also boasts a beautiful blonde damsel, a mysterious masked man wielding a cocked pistol, and a building engulfed in flames, all over a faint backdrop of the American flag (13 stars edition). This revolutionary rollick is poised to open April 6 (in as many cinemas as can pre-sell enough tickets) and proposes to give families not only a Christ-centered story, but a top-notch action film worthy of a wide release.
But does it deliver?
The movie begins in England, not long before the start of Revolutionary War. Opening narration is delivered by the troubled, brooding mercenary William Reynolds (Andrew Cheney). We learn from the get-go that this will be a story about his journey from darkness into light. A story about a man seeking to become a better person and earn the love of a woman.
“I live only to be worthy of your respect,” he confesses, in the lull before the action begins.
We follow Reynolds as he breaks from his employer Charles Kemp (the magnificent John Rhys-Davies), a corrupt businessman at the British East India Company – and barely escapes with his life. The unconscious Reynolds is found by a young woman from nearby village, Charlotte Holloway (Kara Killmer) whose family nurses him back to health. Fortuitously, Reynolds is mistaken for the village’s new vicar, and finds a fresh start. Though the transition is awkward, he is grateful to leave behind his past as a hired assassin and thief to become a man who gives Sunday homilies and enjoys quiet lake-side walks… accompanied by the eligible Charlotte, of course.
One standard friendship-turning-to-love montage later, and the story is ricocheted back into action as Reynolds’ true identity is exposed and he is separated from a bewildered but devoted Charlotte. The scene moves across the Atlantic to colonial Philadelphia, where we discover that the East India Company has a dastardly plot to keep the rebellious colonies in check – a plot maybe only William Reynolds can defeat (and in doing so, win back the trust and admiration of his beloved).
Many elements of Beyond the Mask will delight families in ways yet untouched in the Christian film genre. The visual effects are impressive for a crowdfunded project. They aren’t Spielberg, but they look great, especially for a family-owned production company and a director with only one other film under his belt.
Strong performances are delivered by Rhys-Davies and Killmer – although admittedly Charlotte is a fairly cookie-cutter damsel. In the true Dickensian fashion of her type, Charlotte’s lines chiefly consist of saying “I don’t understand!” or bestowing the truth of God’s grace on those around her. Pleasantly, Killmer endows Charlotte with enough spirit to make us invested in her love story (although Andrew Cheney’s largely dispassionate performance left much to be desired).
The second half of the film, and especially the last half hour or so, has a lot going for it. Young and old alike will find themselves intrigued by the mystery, action, death-defying stunts, explosions, and last-second saves which characterize the story’s climax. It’s fun to be able to meet Ben Franklin, walk the streets of colonial America, and wait in anticipation for the Continental Congress to vote on whether to pass the Declaration of Independence. In Beyond the Mask, parents have a great springboard off which to discuss history, government, and even science and electricity with their kids.
And of course, the spiritual journey of William Reynolds is a relatable tale about trying to earn God’s grace through trial and error, only to realize that forgiveness and love has been freely offered from the start. As Charlotte reminds William:
“Don’t you know that neither redemption nor love can ever be earned? You have but to ask. They are both gifts. Gifts to be granted freely from the heart of God.”
These spiritual lessons aimed toward kids and families, in addition to the historical and scientific conversation-fodder, are points of the film likely to be most appreciated by parents looking to see a Christian Film. And make no mistake – movie-goers seeking safe and redemptive entertainment are precisely the audience these filmmakers had in mind.
Regrettably, the appeal of Beyond the Mask won’t extend much past that specific target audience. For while the film has its merits and its strong moments, they aren’t strong, beautiful, or charming enough to warrant the film’s status-quo script. It features almost too many classic blunders to list. The spiritual elements sometimes Jesus-juke the dialogue. The hero escapes by diving through a window one too many times. The narration functions as chiefly as a shortcut, allowing filmmakers to cheat at story without working for it. The same could be said of the predictable montages in the courtship story.
This is unfortunate, because brilliant narration does exist in film (for example, the quirky narrator of The Big Lebowski) and montages can be captivating when done right (see Up’s famous beginning sequence, or the many montages in Joe Wright’s Pride & Prejudice). But here those techniques fall flat. As for the clichéd dialogue, it’s becoming downright wearisome to always hear heroes croon, “The thought of losing you, it’s more than I can bear!” and villains snarl “I’m surrounded by fools!”
In fairness, these blunders are present in most action films. And Beyond the Mask does share many exciting elements found in romps like Pirates of the Caribbean. But it will always be compared to such films. It will be praised as safe and fun, and its target audience won’t care that it doesn’t challenge the status quo in any meaningful way.
Beyond the Mask is being lauded as a turning point in Christian filmmaking, and I for one hope that’s true. It overcomes (or nearly overcomes) many hurdles that Christian films have failed to clear until now. Producers worked hard to get enough money to make it attractive and hire the right actors to tell the story. They also unabashedly present the gospel as a central plot point, something that will always be controversial among film critics –even Christian critics– if only because usually the art ends up suffering when an agenda is touted so blatantly. But whether the critics like it or not, there will always be an audience for such films. As more and more Christian filmmakers pick up this torch, let’s encourage them where they succeed, while faithfully critiquing where the bar falls way too low.
Ultimately, the filmmakers have spoken out that they made Beyond the Mask to bring the message of Christ to families. And they’ve certainly succeeded in doing that, even if it fumbles artistically along the way.
CAUTIONS (may contain spoilers):
- Religion/Morality: Heavily Christian themes such as forgiveness, grace, truth, and redemption. Jesus Christ is invoked as savior, and one character has an explicitly Christian conversion experience.
- Drug/Alcohol: None
- Language/Profanity: None. Some mild name-calling like “idiot”
- Sex/Nudity: None.
- Violent/Frightening/Intense: Lead character is an assassin. We see shooting, killing, and blood (nothing graphic) and dead bodies. Several battle sequences and kidnappings, one including the abduction of a child. We see explosions and destruction.
Debbie Holloway is the Family Life Editor at Crosswalk.com
Publication date: April 2, 2015