The first wide theatrical release in some years by the Billy Graham Crusade’s World Wide Pictures, “Road to Redemption,” from the oldest U.S. producer of evangelical cinema, lags behind such hipper recent offerings as “The Omega Code” and “Mercy Streets” in its success at concealing its zealotry beneath the facade of a pleasing commercial entertainment. Box office numbers for the picture, which opened in some territories Feb. 16 and expands March 9, will be considerably below the $10 million-$15 million that this genre usually grosses.
Pic opens on frazzled secretary (and all-around harpy) Amanda (Julie Condra) and her ne’er-do-well boyfriend, Alan (Jay Underwood), who are up to their ears in debt. They’re the type of plastic characters that populate the least memorable live-action Disney vehicles, as is Amanda’s two-bit Vegas hood boss, Sully (Leo Rossi, mimicking Robert De Niro — and himself — from “Analyze This,” with a shameful accent).
Nothing here is remotely plausible, particularly Amanda’s willingness to pilfer a wad of cash from Sully’s office rather than ask him for a raise.
But the characters here are merely cogs in a well-oiled machine meant to espouse a religious message. And that becomes apparent when, after blowing $250,000 of Mob money at the racetrack, Amanda concludes that the only way to survive Sully’s wrath is to hit up her wealthy, estranged grandfather (Pat Hingle) for the dough.
Surprisingly, Grandpa, who has recently “got religion,” agrees to dole out the cash, provided Amanda first take him to his favorite fishing spot — in Redemption, Mont. (nudge, nudge) — no matter that he is dying of a degenerative heart condition.
Slapstick hijinks ensue — a bit with a rattlesnake, a bit with a grizzly bear, a bit with Wes Studi as a professional “cleaner.”
Interspersed, there’s the requisite amount of grandfather-granddaughter bonding to wet the tear ducts of soft-hearted auds.
But nothing about the film really rings true, mainly because of the one-dimensional characters and because writer-director Robert Vernon (obviously working within prescribed boundaries) advances some curiously old-fashioned ideas.
Every time a character prays for a miracle, one occurs. Grandpa explains his disapproval of Amanda and Alan’s premarital co-habitation and, lo and behold, Alan turns out to be a selfish coward.
Pic’s goal seems to be to show the corruption of Amanda’s initial greed, her unnecessary material possessions and the glory of her ultimate discovery of God.
That’s really the biggest mistake most of these religious-produced and -themed pictures make: They’re dogmatic by intent rather than by dramatic import, which makes them less likely to appeal to an audience beyond the already devout.
Of course, most films are trying to sell something, be it religion or action figures. But given that American films rarely assess faith-related issues at all, there’s a much better film to be made here than “Road to Redemption” hints at.
With the exception of the robust Hingle, perfs are undistinguished in low-budget pic, though tech results are relatively strong, with attractive use of desert locations and, most notably, Vernon’s fluid freeing-up of the camera from the stilted craftsmanship of World Wide’s former workhorse, James F. Collier.