As might be expected from a movie set in the intersecting worlds of evangelical Christianity and pro wrestling, every dramatic beat lands as subtly as a blow to the head in “The Masked Saint.” Adapted from Chris Whaley’s novel partly inspired by his own experiences at the pulpit and in the ring, this gracelessly written and played drama from director Warren P. Sonoda centers around a pugilist pastor who learns too late that pride goeth before a fall, as does playing God with all the pimps and robbers who abound in his community. Veering from broad small-town comedy to heavy-handed vigilante dramatics, and marbled with the sort of spiritual epiphanies typically mastered in Sunday school rather than seminary, this Canadian indie seems unlikely to galvanize the faithful, let alone the unconverted, following its dim opening-weekend performance.
Brett Granstaff plays the fresh-faced, able-bodied Chris Samuels, a Christian husband and father who regularly dons a cross-emblazoned white mask to become “the Saint,” a fighter in a WWE-style company (imaginatively named WFW). We first meet Chris preparing to fight a hulking behemoth named the Reaper (pro wrestler James Preston Rogers), and as could be reasonably predicted from their differences in body type, the bout doesn’t go so well. When we catch up with him sometime later, Chris has retired from the ring and is preparing to move with his wife, Michelle (Lara Jean Chorostecki), and young daughter, Carrie (T.J. McGibbon), to the town of Rolling Spring, Mich. There, he will assume the pastorship of the troubled Westside Baptist, which suffers from record-low attendance figures and crippling debts, as well as a blowhard of a benefactor, Judd Lumpkin (Patrick McKenna), whose steady financial support is small compensation for his bullying personality.
Still, as Michelle is quick to reassure her husband in the movie’s sappy early stretches, “The Lord never gives us more than we can handle.” The Lord, alas, doesn’t seem to have applied the same merciful logic to Scott Crowell and Brett Granstaff’s tortured script, which juggles more than its reasonable allotment of small-town stereotypes: These include the hard-of-hearing old choir director (Joan Gregson), the salt-of-the-earth church matriarch (Diahann Caroll), the battered wife (Jen Pogue) who turns out to sing like an angel, and the repentant prostitute (Danielle Benton) whom the congregation openly scorns before offering their tentative acceptance. It’s the sort of illustration meant to rebuke the smug hypocrisy of the modern-day Pharisee, but the one-note condescension with which the character is treated scarcely represents an improvement (she might as well be wearing a “Redeem Me” sign over her white fur coat and hot-pink skirt).
Eventually Chris decides it’s time to bust out the old Saint mask, not only to resume his wrestling career and supplement his income, but also to clean up the streets — a bizarre “Death Wish”-style turn that’s accompanied by an ego trip of near-Belshazarrian proportions. Chris will inevitably be shown the error of his ways, though in a manner no less pat and preachy than one of his comically inept sermons. After clearly establishing that helping the oppressed is good but beating up thugs is bad, Sonoda’s movie nonetheless finds itself deep in morally confused territory; the final-bout climax plays out like an inspirational greeting card sponsored by the pro-wrestling industry, and the staging, for all its low-budget clumsiness, is grisly enough to provoke a certain admiration. “Where does the Bible say, ‘Thou shalt not wrestle’?” Michelle pipes up. You can’t really fault her theology, as will be clear to anyone who’s read the 32nd chapter of Genesis — an altogether less time-consuming and vastly more profitable endeavor, by the way, than enduring “The Masked Saint.”