A British mercenary’s rocky road to redemption (and romance) leads him into the very heart of the American Revolution in director Chad Burns’ “Beyond the Mask,” a mostly stiff, infrequently stirring attempt to furnish a swashbuckling historical yarn for Christian audiences. The mixed result feels like a half-glass affair all around: Production values are well above the faith-based-indie average, if still somewhat deficient in texture and atmosphere; and the script is preachy in ways that will be wholly acceptable to its target audience (and perhaps even a few non-believers who stumble in by accident), yet still so simplistically and creakily plotted that dramatic excitement and character complexity remain firmly at bay. Rolling out in more than 100 theaters after profitable four-wall and VOD exposure, this Kickstarter-funded, $4 million-budget effort should benefit from its unusually ambitious action-adventure approach, but seems unlikely to match the grassroots success of Freestyle’s 2014 hit “God’s Not Dead.”
William Reynolds (Andrew Cheney) is a skilled 18th-century assassin who’s cut a bloody swath through India on the orders of the hugely powerful and corrupt British East India Company. But when he decides it’s time to turn over a new leaf and retire to the English countryside, he’s promptly double-crossed by his dastardly employer, Charles Kemp (John Rhys-Davies). Barely escaping an attempt on his life, Will takes on the identity of a young vicar in a nearby village, where he fumbles at the pulpit and quickly falls in love with a fetching, pure-hearted maiden named Charlotte (Kara Killmer), who tentatively returns his affections. It’s here, too, that Will’s man-of-the-cloth masquerade introduces him to the possibility of hope — spelled out in clear terms by Charlotte’s servant Jeremiah (Charlie Newhart), who offers him a wise, God-fearing benediction: “Redemption, not revenge.”
Both turn out to be in the offing, however, once Kemp realizes his enemy is still alive — and in possession of highly incriminating evidence against him and the East India Company — and sends Will on the run again, this time to the American colonies circa 1776. Conveniently enough, both Kemp and Charlotte follow suit, and before long Will is taking a page from the Batman/Zorro playbook, transforming himself into a masked vigilante called “the Highwayman” and foiling Kemp’s violent attempts to repress the colonists and their revolutionary leanings. That includes the surprisingly advanced use of explosives, a problem that calls for the scientific expertise of a doddering, self-quoting Benjamin Franklin (Alan Madlane), leading to a bomb-defusing climax that, in its convoluted plotting and dependence on cut-rate CGI, feels heavily derivative of such lackluster studio properties as the “National Treasure” franchise and the Robert Downey Jr.-starring “Sherlock Holmes” movies.
All this onscreen mayhem, though utterly devoid of suspense or surprise, makes a pretty odd fit with Will’s spiritual journey as he gradually comes to realize that honest self-examination and repentance — not violence, deception or even romantic love — will restore him to the Lord’s good graces. It’s a message delivered unsubtly yet sincerely, and with pleasing emotional grace notes by likable leads Killmer and Cheney, even if the latter can be as drippy as he is dashing. Chewing the scenery with comparative abandon, meanwhile, is Rhys Davies, who is no stranger to Christian fare after “Killing Jesus” and “One Night With the King” (as well as his famous role as Gimli in “The Lord of the Rings” trilogy), and whose bellicose, two-dimensional villainy makes for undeniably enjoyable viewing. All in all, you’ve sat through duller history lessons, and almost certainly duller sermons.