In tyro helmer Jon Gunn’s “Mercy Streets” — a familiar and tiring trip around the neo-noir block — there’s much gunplay, but only one actual death. There’s a reasonably tense car chase in the first act, but no one gets seriously hurt. And there’s a good deal of conning, thievery and other illicit action undertaken by the characters, even though in the end everyone is redeemed through the power of faith and brotherly love. That’s because “Mercy Streets” is no mere crime drama, but rather the latest in the recent resurgence of independently financed, spiritually themed pics that seek to couch religious dogma within the shells of B-grade genre entertainment. Released, coincidentally or not, in the immediate wake of the Washington establishment’s attack on Hollywood, pic has fallen woefully short of the surprisingly strong returns of last year’s doomsday thriller, “The Omega Code,” also co-produced and distributed by Providence Entertainment.
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This new wave of religious cinema, with its generous appointment of special effects, surprisingly high production values and slick, commercial advertising style, should not be confused with the stolid and zealotry-filled, church-backed films of a generation ago (like James F. Collier’s films for the Billy Graham Crusade). This is not your father’s evangelism; now, the very same “modernization” (read: commercialization) of religion that brought us televangelism and “Touched by an Angel” has infiltrated the cobwebbed niche of religious movies. The genre has been gentrified in an effort to extend its appeal beyond the borders of the churchgoing faithful.
As with the lyrics of the popular Christian rock band, Creed, the conventional wisdom in religious media seems to be a philosophy of camouflage — as long as audiences don’t feel they’re being preached to, they might take the bait. For the first 20 minutes or so of “Mercy Streets,” even the seasoned viewer would have little reason to suspect the film as other than a terse, moody thriller, made proficiently on a modest budget.
In fact, it’s when “Mercy Streets” sticks to its genre-flick impulses that it is at its strongest, weaving an effectively contrived drama of double- and triple-crosses, shot through with the retro-chic style of “Out of Sight” and the “Get Carter” remake. Although he displays no originality, Gunn directs a competent action sequence and smoothly borrows from musicvic and commercial styles without overindulging them.
Newly paroled con man John (David White) tries to walk the straight and narrow but quickly falls back into his criminal ways. He’s searching for “one last score” to gather the capital needed to pursue legitimate business interests, and the lascivious mentor/father figure Rome (Eric Roberts, way over-the-top) offers him just that. Rome proposes that John act as the bait in an elaborate counterfeiting con that, if it goesas planned, will defraud a wealthy Japanese business man of $1 million.
But then co-screenwriters Gunn and John Mann resort to one of the movies’ most dubious and rarely effective bits of plotting: They give John a long-lost, identical twin brother, Jeremiah (also played by White), who is about to be ordained as an Episcopal priest. Through a highly convoluted series of events, John and Jeremiah unintentionally trade places, and we’re asked to swallow the conceit that these radically different people could step into each others’ shoes unnoticed, just because they look alike.
In fact, White (who co-produced and has previously starred in several other religious films) does an effective job of creating two distinct characterizations.
But it is when Gunn shifts his focus away from lean, efficient action to a staid study of interpersonal relationships that “Mercy Streets” turns wholly incredulous and clunky. White (who co-produced and has previously starred in several other religious films) effectively creates two distinct characterizations, just as John and Jeremiah do decent jobs of impersonating each other before they unite to overcome the dark, wayward forces in their lives. And while we may not get Billy Graham, pic does pause for a set-piece involving Stacy Keach as a wise, eccentric priest (we know this because he has wild, frizzy hair) whose sole purpose is to introduce a handful of Big Religious Ideas into the narrative.
At its best, “Mercy Streets” suggests a sanitized version of the better exploitation films of the late 1970s and early ’80s, which used a certain ingenuity and economy of form to conceal budgetary limitation. What is interesting is that these religious pics have now become the last vestige of a unique form of authentically independent production and self-distribution that all but bit the dust in the age of cable, video and the mini-majors.