Try to imagine "Godspell" without the jokes, the charm, the vigor or the terrific songs, and you have some idea what to expect from "The Judas Project," a muddle-headed allegorical drama that presents the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ in a contemporary setting.

Try to imagine “Godspell” without the jokes, the charm, the vigor or the terrific songs, and you have some idea what to expect from “The Judas Project,” a muddle-headed allegorical drama that presents the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ in a contemporary setting.

Indie pic posted some respectable opening-week numbers in limited Deep South and southwest release, fueled by a canny ad campaign and direct-mail to church groups. (Pic may also have benefited, indirectly, from publicity about the religious cult siege in Waco, Texas.) Second-week drop-off, however, suggests there is trouble ahead when pic breaks wider near Easter.

Film obviously reps a labor of love for someone named James H. Barden, who’s listed as writer, director and co-executive producer, and who wrote the dreadfully sincere (and sincerely dreadful) Christian-pop tunes on the soundtrack. Unfortunately, what Barden has wrought calls to mind the old adage about paving the road to hell with good intentions.

Newcomer John O’Banion plays the Jesus Christ figure, Jesse, a charismatic fellow in blue jeans who makes the blind see, the lame walk and non-believers nervous. O’Banion looks like a younger, more beatific Alain Delon, and sounds like someone reading from a vernacular translation of the New Testament as he spreads the good words in what appears to be modern-day Georgia.

Jesse’s disciples are — yes, you guessed it — fishermen. Mostly, they are sport fishermen, with at least one fly fisherman thrown in for good measure. Jude (Ramy Zada), the least dependable of Jesse’s followers, betrays him for 30 pieces of silver, and is last seen skulking off with a rope in his hand.

In the gospel according to Barden, O’Banion’s Jesse is the Real Thing, the long-awaited Messiah, the One and True Christ — something that, ironically, may upset many of the very devout Christian audiences that this pic is aimed at. Barden might have overcome this by having someone remark, “You’ve come back!” or , “You’re the Second Coming!” But no. According to “The Judas Project,” mankind has been quite literally godless until Jesse showed up in blue jeans.

Right from the start, it’s obvious that Jesse, like Jesus, is destined to be crucified by the Powers That Be. Those powers are represented by a smug, corporeal religious leader and a femme fatale who resembles David Bowie during his Ziggy Stardust period.

Since these bad guys have a large army of thugs with automatic weapons and high-powered rifles at their disposal, it’s hard to understand why they don’t simply have Jesse shot, rather than go through all the trouble with the nails and hammers. But, then again, why Jesse doesn’t simply appear on “Larry King Live” if he’s really interested in reaching the multitudes?

“The Judas Project”– which bears a 1990 copyright, and contains a couple of dated references to the USSR — is an embarrassingly amateurish piece of work, altogether unworthy of its subject. The acting seldom rises above the level of that found in religious instructional shorts for very small children. The screenplay is notably short on inspiration, divine or otherwise, and the direction is clunky.

Technically, the best things are a few impressive moments of special-effects magic by Academy Award-winner Richard Edlund. Otherwise, pic has the appearance of something filmed by well-meaning people with little money and less talent.

The Judas Project

Production

An RS Entertainment release of a Judas Project Ltd. Partnership production. Produced by James Nelson, Ervin Melton. Executive producers, James H. Barden, Edward A. Teraskiewicz. Directed, written by Barden.

Crew

Camera (color), Bryan England; editor, Noreen Zepp Linden; music, Barden; production design, Philip Dean Foreman; visual effects produced by Richard Edlund. Reviewed at Cineplex-Odeon Spectrum Theatre, Houston, Feb. 28, 1993. MPAA rating: PG-13. Running time: 97 min.

With

Jesse - John O'Banion
Jude - Ramy Zada
Also with: Richard Herd, Gerald Gordon, Jeff Corey.
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