Bill O’Reilly’s “Killing” series brings its most inherently commercial title — “Killing Jesus” — to National Geographic Channel, and at least with this topic, nobody needs to worry about O’Reilly claiming to have been there. Produced by Ridley Scott’s company, an outfit that’s no stranger to epics, the production lends a straightforward quality to the story, and takes its name seriously, squarely focusing on the circumstances and scheming that surround Christ’s death. Along the way there are discreet miracles, but this represents a more historical approach to material that’s currently arriving in abundance, a byproduct of History’s success with “The Bible.”
Compared with other recent depictions of Jesus, this one — directed by Christopher Menaul from an adaptation by Walon Green — is perhaps most notably characterized by restraint. So while covering a good deal of ground, the filmmakers don’t linger over the ordeal of the Crucifixion in the way, say, Mel Gibson did in “The Passion of the Christ,” and the program benefits from that sense of economy.
Still, the three-hour telecast (about three-quarters that length, sans commercials) must recover from a truly terrible opening, with Kelsey Grammer buried under a bushy mane and oversized hat as a wild-eyed, vision-plagued King Herod. In about as blatant an example of star casting for promotional purposes as can be imagined, Herod orders an atrocity against children, and then meets his fate before the title flashes across the screen.
After that, the film settles down, introducing the adult Jesus (Haaz Sleiman), who tackles this most challenging of roles in a helpfully human way. Then again, Jesus is often a secondary part of the story, with much of the focus on the High Priest Caiaphas (Rufus Sewell), who decides early on that this Messiah must be eliminated; Pontius Pilate (Stephen Moyer), who is reluctant to be the author of that death; and Antipas (Eoin Macken), the Jewish king, who is led around by his bloodthirsty wife/ex-sister-in-law Herodias (Emmanuelle Chriqui).
There is, admittedly, very little that can be brought to this tale that hasn’t already been done, especially now that producer Mark Burnett has made it his mission to put the Bible up on the screen in as many forms as possible. The mild point of differentiation here is a muted emphasis on Christ’s divinity, and a greater preoccupation with how his death was deemed necessary because he threatened the prevailing power structure.
Nevertheless, just playing a numbers game (2 billion Christians on the planet, a point specifically referenced, somewhat redundantly, during the closing narration), networks don’t need much of an excuse to revisit a story that resonates with so many.
Beyond premiering on Palm Sunday, the movie will air in 171 countries, per National Geographic, which has done quite well, by its standards, with previous adaptations of O’Reilly’s books. “Killing Jesus” gets a one-week jump on NBC’s “A.D.: The Bible Continues,” and about the only thing less suspenseful than the press release crowning it a ratings winner is how the movie is going to end.