Sometimes the story behind a movie is more compelling than what actually ends up onscreen. That might be the case for Beyond the Mask, a terrifically earnest and occasionally cartoonish attempt at a Christian swashbuckler/historical drama from Burns Family Studios, the unabashedly Christian production company that released the historic epic Pendragon: Sword of His Father in 2008.
According to its website, Burns Family Studios is "committed to producing quality, Christ-centered action adventure films, because we believe stories can touch hearts, and Christ can change lives." In keeping with this sentiment, Beyond the Mask aspires as much to being a rip-roaring entertainment as moral lesson. To this end it makes extensive use of computer-generated effects and an overtly Hollywood approach to its action sequences.
Beyond the Mask
82 Cast: Andrew Cheney, John Rhys-Davies, Kara Killmer, Adetokumboh M’Cormack, Steve Blackwood, Alan Madlane
Director: Chad Burns
Rating: PG, for action, violence and some thematic elements
Running time: 103 minutes
While the Christian message is undeniably there, along with the dubious premise that the Founding Fathers were devout, the inevitable epiphany is withheld until relatively late in the proceedings and relatively underplayed. It's also interesting in that it takes for its chief engine of evil the hyper-capitalist East India Company, which at the time of the Revolutionary War employed a private army of 60,000 and monopolized trade with the American Colonies.
At the head of the company is Sir Charles Kemp (a gleefully villainous John Rhys-Davies, who is probably having too good a time), who employs William Reynolds (Andrew Cheney) as a company assassin. Reynolds, an "infamous scoundrel," eventually suffers a crisis of conscience and runs off to the American Colonies, where he's saved from drowning by a comely young woman named Charlotte Holloway (Kara Killmer). A chaste love immediately blossoms between them.
Reynolds settles in, assuming the identity of a dead vicar, and for months lives peaceably as a man of the cloth. But when Charlotte's long-lost uncle arrives from England, he turns out to be none other than Charles Kemp. Outed as a fraud, Reynolds is disgraced. He leaves town, but not before vowing to one day prove himself a good man worthy of Charlotte's love.
The action now shifts to Philadelphia, where Reynolds becomes the protege of (the steadfastly secular) Benjamin Franklin (Alan Madlane) and helps to thwart a plot to disrupt the just convened Continental Congress. He then dons the title mask and as a proto-superhero called "the Journeyman" joins the fight for American independence.
While it goes without saying that one should probably not put much faith in the filmmakers' version of events, Beyond the Mask doesn't feel any more ridiculous than, say, Roland Emmerich's The Patriot. Still, when Reynolds uses his mad martial arts skills during a battle scene, it's hard not to giggle. Plus the editing in the action scenes is so frenetic and disjointed that they feel imported from another movie.
Still, let's give Beyond the Mask its due. It's not a sermon directed at a narrow segment of the moviegoing market; it's an attempt to make a broadly entertaining film with a wholesome message. And it's already been successful by some measures -- when it opened in April it broke records for "on-demand distribution" (a practice also known as "four-walling" where the film producers book theaters in response to audience demand) by opening on 364 screens across the country.
Beyond the Mask isn't the best faith-based production yet released, but it's not the worst movie in the cineplexes this week either. While I can't imagine it would satisfy audiences made up of anything but the most uncritical true believers (or possibly children), it's an ambitious movie that raises the bar for faith-based productions. With a better script, better acting and more consistency of tone, Beyond the Mask might have passed for a vacuous summer popcorn muncher.
And while that might sound like faint praise, it's apparently exactly what the filmmakers intended -- a family friendly historical fantasy. Much more dire crimes have been committed against cinema.
MovieStyle on 06/05/2015