The investigation at the center of “The Investigator” is a classroom inquiry into the “homicide” of Jesus Christ as conducted by a former NYC cop turned high school teacher. But this odd duck of a Christian evangelical production, written by Rich Romano (brother of Ray) and drawn from events in his own life is also, by turns, an underdog sports pic, a “Dangerous Minds”-style classroom drama, and a sledgehammer (but not unaffecting) tragedy about one man’s loss and gradual rekindling of faith. Playing on 11 screens since Sept. 13, the self-distributed indie has grossed a respectable $100,000 and should continue to play well to its target demo as it expands.
The past two decades have been boom times for the evangelical film biz, bolstered by the hefty grosses of breakout titles like “The Omega Code” and the Kirk Cameron-fronted “Fireproof,” which benefited from better production values and more filmmaking savoir-faire than the earlier generation of Christian pics produced and released by the Billy Graham Crusade. But the barely veiled objective of such films — to reinforce the convictions of the faithful while trying to convert skeptics — remains a constant, with artistic considerations remaining a distant second. So it speaks well of “The Investigator” that, for much of its running time, it’s possible to lose sight of the movie’s agenda and get caught up in its hokey machinations. (Consciously or not, the pic owes something to Italian director Damiano Damiani’s 1986 “The Inquiry,” with Keith Carradine as a Roman official investigating the circumstances of the Crucifixion.)
At least, that is, once director Curtis Graham gets past a perfectly dreadful opening stretch that, viewed out of context, could easily be mistaken for an “SNL” parody of an overheated Hollywood police movie. On the streets of an alleged New York City cobbled together from stock-footage inserts and poorly disguised Florida location work, veteran NYPD Sergeant James Buanacore (Wade Williams) mistakenly shoots an unarmed suspect and finds himself forced into an ignominious early retirement as a result. That alone might be enough to make a man turn his back on God, especially one who reads the Bible at his desk in between solving cases. But no sooner is Sgt. Buanacore booted from the force than his pregnant wife miscarries, and the beaten-down Catholic rips the prominently displayed crucifix right off his neck.
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With a little help from his “famous actor” brother (David Sanborn), James lands a job as the substitute baseball coach and criminal justice teacher at a Christian high school, where the laissez-faire principal advises “If you get stuck for a lesson, just tell them some police stories” — a ringing endorsement for private education if ever there was. But as corny as it is, shot in hazy golden light and with a non-stop syrupy synthesizer score, “The Investigator” takes an undeniable turn for the better once it drops the sub-“Dragnet” antics, largely due to Williams’ earnest, appealing performance and such cookie-cutter but well-acted supporting characters as the portly, lovable science teacher (Kevin White) and the cocky football jock (Evan Brady) with a secret sensitive side. Considerably less endearing: the glowering football coach peddling speed to his star athletes (played by Kibwe Dorsey in the sort of “black devil” role one would have thought went out of fashion around the time of “Birth of a Nation”).
The baseball team itself is a predictable rag-tag shambles, with unmotivated players and hand-me-down uniforms. But it’s harder to foresee the plot twist that turns Mr. Buanacore’s classroom into a forum first for a re-examination of the JFK assassination and, later, an even more controversial assassination from around the year 33 AD. That “investigation,” inspired (per the end credits) by an actual mock trial Romano stages annually with his students at Long Island Christian High School, may be little more than a kangaroo court in the movie’s grand scheme, but the sheer oddity of the premise, and the even odder mashup of the “Law & Order”-esque trial scenes and the “Hoosiers”-style sports narrative, keep the film surprisingly watchable throughout.
The level of theological debate here rarely goes beyond that of an after-school debate club, grounded in lots of blather about circumstantial evidence and the reductive argument that the only truly verifiable historical events are those attested to by living eyewitnesses. (Take that, Mr. Darwin!) Yet within the rather proscribed limitations of this particular genre, “The Investigator” remains reasonably open to dissenting voices without feeling the need to pummel them into submission.