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'Risen' tries to trick you into thinking it's a renegade Jesus movie

Picking up where "The Passion of the Christ" let off, a new film goes somewhere fresh before completely flatlining.

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‘Risen’
Director:
Kevin Reynolds
Stars: Joseph Fiennes, Tom Felton
Rating: PG-13
2 (out of 5) Globes

God movies are for the godly, but “Risen” pulls off a neat trick: It pretends it’s not one of them. That winds up being a lie worthy of Peter himself, but for a good while it’s not another of those pious films that periodically slip into multiplexes, catering to the admittedly unrepresented devout populace. It’s a renegade Jesus movie, right down to the fact that it never once uses the name “Jesus.” He’s called Yeshua, or sometimes just “The Nazarene,” which is more historically on-point. Even better, he’s played by Maorian character actor Cliff Curtis, not the usual Aryan J.C., like the blank Portuguese model who lorded over “Son of God,” otherwise known as “The Hot Jesus Movie.”

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But Yeshua’s not the hero of “Risen,” and nor are his hepped-up and persecuted disciples. Instead it’s a doubting Thomas — not the Doubting Thomas, but Joseph Fiennes’ Clavius, a cynical centurion destined for a flip-flop. A tardy, unofficial, hard-PG-13 sequel to the hard-R “The Passion of the Christ,” it picks up mid-crucifixion to tell what came after The Greatest Story Ever Told. What follows isn’t even the 1,000,000th Greatest Story Ever Told, but it has a unique entrypoint into a tale told time and again. That's not just because its protagonist is a non-believer. Clavius is just a guy who happened to be there during a sudden, possibly divinely-engineered earthquake, followed soon by a mysteriously vanished corpse. He’s of the wrong faith, but the movie — for its first half — is more interested that he’s on the wrong side of history.

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This is the 1953 epic “The Robe” all over again, but it still dwells on the stuff most Jesus movies never show. Director Kevin Reynolds — the disgraced auteur of “Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves” and “Waterworld” — limply plods through the usual drama (an effete Pontius Pilate brooding, vaguely anti-Semitic portrayals of Jewish high priest Caiaphas meddling). But it keeps finding interesting stuff on the sidelines.Reynolds' cameras mostly ignore the suffering savior, dwelling instead on the practical side of things, like how you take down a cross after the deed is done and the stink of rotting bodies in mass graves. There’s a heated discussion about whether to burn Yeshua’s body along with the rest, and the search to find out who rolled that stone away from that grave — in front of boozing guards — becomes a full-on investigation that plays like a detective show with sandals.

It’s also stuck with Fiennes, whose idea of taciturn too often seems like mere disinterest. The first half is fascinating but sleepy, and we may almost miss when it takes a hairpin turn into a simple conversion story. Clavius isn’t radicalized by rational reasoning; he just happens to catch the resurrected Yeshua hanging with his boys, which immediately causes him to drop his sword and join their club. As a movie about turning atheists into believers it’s not very effective; surrendering to a higher power is pretty easy when you’ve laid your eyes on hard evidence.

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The film's own miracle is that the mid-film shift yields only a minimum of TBN-style kitsch, but it also robs the second half of any forward drive. Once it ditches Jerusalem, “Risen” enjoys a brief spurt of energy from the Apostles’ escape, then flatlines into scenes of sailing and walking, peppered with the occasional visit from Curtis’ Yeshua, who seems more like an affable guy (who performs magic tricks!) than the charismatic son of a god. It becomes a movie about travel that goes nowhere, crawling towards a randomly chosen ending.

One reason the Apostles’ post-Jesus lives are rarely filmed is they’re too sprawling, too same-y for the movies — not unlike those wild, sometimes nasty Old Testament tales, with their animal-filled arcs, fits of mass genocide and fathers almost stabbing their sons. Far as stories that can easily be contained by movies go, the New only has Jesus. With little to work with, “Risen” barely bothers distinguishing one disciple from the other, although it offers a goofy Bartholomew who’s like a Bushwick hippie who today would open a mayonnaise shop, plus one actor doing his best Gerard Butler howl for enjoyably inexplicable reasons.

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The script tries to anchor itself to Clavius, but he's too much of a wet blanket. In the second half Reynolds gives Fiennes close-ups meant to show his character’s growing piety. But the actor looks more like he’s struggling to make a second facial expression — like the “Terminator 2” deleted scene where Ah-nuld’s T-100 fumbles to make a deeply pained smile. When Fiennes tries to do more than stare blankly, it looks like it’s more painful than getting nailed to a cross.

Follow Matt Prigge on Twitter @mattprigge

 

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