It’s 1776, and William Reynolds is an assassin for the East India Company! That might be more like something more out of a certain videogame than actual history, but hey! He’s the “villain of India” and an “infamous scoundrel.” But now he’s going straight… straight to the colonies to become best friends with Benjamin Franklin and to foil a Guy Fawkes-ish plot that would stop America from being born. But wait! Before that, he will masquerade as a vicar and prove to a pretty woman that he’s now a Good Man and for about five minutes act as a masked vigilante for colonial freedom. And for Jesus, of course.
Yeah, all of that in one movie. And not in a good way. This wannabe Christian swashbuckler doesn’t have much buckle to swash, but not for lack of throwing stuff up on the screen in the hopes that something will stick as exciting and romantic. (None of it does.)
Apparently Beyond the Mask has broken records for on-demand distribution — basically, that’s when audiences organize one-off screenings in conjunction with the producers — by selling a ton of tickets for 364 screens (that’s a lot) in the U.S. for its debut this week. Mask also raises the bar for faith-based movies with its would-be sweeping scope and feints toward a historical setting. Alas, however, it doesn’t actually raise the bar for quality for this apparently undemanding audience… or, at least, for an audience that seems to demand nothing at all except that a movie mention God and that its characters require no motivation for any of their actions, even wildly contradictory ones, beyond “but Jesus.”
It is kind of new for a Christian film that an entity such as the East India Company — called “a monster” here — would be its villain; American evangelical Christianity these days is all about how Jesus wants you to be wealthy (and how poverty is a moral failing), and is most definitely not about corporate malfeasance being a bad thing. Still, it is beyond cartoonish how Reynolds (Andrew Cheney) is pursed by his former EIC boss when he suddenly decides to quit being a bad guy. (The EIC honcho is played by John Rhys-Davies [The Princess Diaries 2: Royal Engagement, The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King], who does everything but twirl his mustache here to convince you that he’s eee-vel.) I mean, we’re told that Reynolds is a vicious, hardened mercenary, but we don’t actually see that. And we’re told he’s had a change of heart, but we don’t witness that, either. Still, Reynolds is handsome and sad-faced, so I guess that’s supposed to be enough to make us sympathize with him? There isn’t even any mention of God or a religious epiphany till much later on, and even then it’s only in passing and seems to have only the most cursory bearing on Reynolds’ behavior. I don’t understand how even people who want to see God onscreen will be satisfied with this.
And if you want emotional or intellectual or psychological or historical credibility, and some basic narrative cohesion, you can forget that too. Reynolds goes into hiding in by posing as a vicar, and it’s beyond ridiculous that this alleged rogue could pass as a man of the cloth for, apparently, months, giving sermons and everything, without anyone getting suspicious. But this is how he meets the utterly generic Charlotte Holloway (Kara Killmer), to whom Reynolds decides he has to prove he’s a Good Man. (There’s a lot of rescuing-from-drowning in their chaste courtship. I think all the wet clothes and essential life-saving bodily contact is intended to be faith-friendly sexy. It isn’t. It does make them both look pretty clumsy, though.) There isn’t a plot so much as Reynolds stumbling randomly from one outrageous coincidence to another, while a very aggressive soundtrack attempts to inject some drama. The dialogue consists of moments of epic awfulness such as: “Would she be surprised if I showed her the uncorrected Parliamentary report I possess?” The entire endeavor is about as authentic as a theme park, with lots of cheesy fake accents and shooting locations on pseudo English estates in Michigan. When Reynolds arrives in Philadelphia, there’s a fife and drum corps just walking down the street fife-and-drumming. Because history!
Perhaps people who think Jesus was one of the American Founding Fathers will find this appealing. It’s hard to imagine anyone else will.