Canadian brothers Peter and Paul Lalonde return to the "end days" genre with "Left Behind," another drama purportedly inspired by Biblical prophesies. Pic is aimed squarely at the Christian community, particularly evangelicals. Target aud is undeniably large and receptive -- but odd release pattern could undermine profitability.

They’re caught up in the rapture again. Canadian brothers Peter and Paul Lalonde, co-producers of the direct-to-video Apocalyptic thrillers “Revelation” and “Tribulation,” return to the “end days” genre with “Left Behind,” another drama purportedly inspired by Biblical prophesies. Pic, based on the first in a series of popular novels by Tim F. LaHaye and Jerry B. Jenkins, is aimed squarely at the Christian community, particularly evangelicals. Target aud is undeniably large and receptive — witness the under-the-radar B.O. success of the similarly themed “The Omega Code” (1999) — but odd release pattern could undermine profitability: “Left Behind” was released on homevid several months ago to generate positive word-of-mouth prior to bigscreen engagements, which began nationwide Feb. 2.

Obviously mindful of their source material’s devout following, scripters Allan McElroy, Paul Lalonde and Joe Goodman adhere closely to basics of book’s plot. Action kicks off in Israel, as Global News Network correspondent Buck Williams (Kirk Cameron) interviews scientist Chaim Rosenzweig (Colin Fox) about latter’s development of a remarkable process that enables farmers to grow food on seemingly arid land. During the interview, Iraqi fighter jets suddenly appear overhead and launch a massive air assault. Before the Israeli air force can counterattack, the invaders are miraculously blasted out of the sky.

Later, while on a London-bound flight piloted by workaholic captain Rayford Steele (Brad Johnson), Williams witnesses more amazing events: Dozens of passengers (including every child on board) simply vanish, leaving behind clothing, frantic parents and discombobulated fellow flyers. Tens of millions of similar vanishings occur throughout the world, though pic — doubtless hampered by budgetary restraints — offers only fleeting glimpses of the collateral damage caused by this phenomenon.

Chloe (Janaya Stephens), pilot Steele’s college-age daughter, is caught in a massive traffic snarl caused by the multiple collisions of suddenly driverless cars. When she returns home, she discovers her mother and younger brother are among the vanished. Steele, heretofore scornful of his wife’s strong religious beliefs, begins to wonder if he and Chloe are living in the days of miracle and wonder described in the Book of Revelation. Specifically, he wonders if his wife, his son and all of the other missing millions were “raptured” –i.e., brought up to heaven by God to avoid hard times ahead.

Meanwhile, Williams takes a different route toward uncovering the truth, piecing together clues that link a couple of international bankers to a seemingly saintly United Nations ambassador, Nicolae Carpathia (Gordon Currie). Eventually, Williams, too, recognizes the disappearances as the result of divine intervention. Trouble is, he also recognizes that he and other non-raptured folks will be forced to deal with the Biblically prophesied machinations of the Antichrist.

“Left Behind” might be extremely effective while preaching to the converted, but it’s no great shakes as secular entertainment. A couple of intriguing subplots — Steele feels guilty about an adulterous affair with a stewardess-turned-U.N. worker (Chelsea Noble); a dedicated minister (Clarence Gilyard) briefly but bitterly complains about being unraptured –are insufficiently developed. The dialogue is stilted, the characters are one-dimensional and the performances are bland, even when judged by the standards for this niche-market genre.

Worse, pic lacks a suitably scary Antichrist. Whereas Michael York breathed fire and life into his villainy in “The Omega Code,” and Nick Mancuso sliced the deviled ham with exuberant ferocity in “Revelation” and “Tribulation,” Gordon Currie underplays to the point of being underwhelming.

On a tech level, pic is unremarkable. On the other hand, there’s nothing here that looks as laugh-out-loud cheesy as some f/x shots in “The Omega Code.” As might be expected, given the continuing popularity of the LaHaye-Jenkins books, “Left Behind” is left wide open for a sequel. Presumably, this means Cameron, late of TV’s “Growing Pains,” will find steady employment as his character continues to seek ways to beat the devil. There are much worse things that could happen to a former sitcom child star.

Left Behind

Production

A Cloud Ten Pictures release in association with Namesake Entertainment. Produced by Peter Lalonde, Paul Lalonde. Executive producer, Ralph Winter. Directed by Vic Sarin. Screenplay, Allan McElroy, Paul Lalonde, Joe Goodman, based on the novel by Tim F. LaHaye, Jerry B. Jenkins.

Crew

Camera (color), George Jiri Tirl; editor, Michael Pacek; music, Jim Covell; production designer, Arthur W. Herriot; art director, Jim Phillips; sound (Dolby Digital), Rob Fletcher; assistant director, Michael Zenon; casting, Cathy Henderson, Dori Zukerman. Reviewed on DVD, Houston, Jan. 31, 2001. MPAA Rating: PG-13. Running time: 95 MIN.

With

Buck Williams - Kirk Cameron Rayford Steele - Brad Johnson Chloe Steele - Janaya Stephens Bruce Barnes - Clarence Gilyard Chaim Rosenzweig - Colin Fox Nicolae Carpathia - Gordon Currie Hattie Durham - Chelsea Noble Jonathan Stonagal - Daniel Pilon Joshua Cothran - Tony De Santis Dirk Burton - Jack Langedijk
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