‘God’s Not Dead 2’
Director: Harold Cronk
Stars: Melissa Joan Hart, Jesse Metcalfe
1 Globe (out of 5)
Just because “God’s Not Dead 2” isn’t as lip-smackingly insane as “God’s Not Dead 1” doesn’t mean you should let down your guard. The first, a shock hit in 2014, featured nice evangelicals berated by mean secularists, but if anything it was even more cruel to its made-up villains than vice versa. It killed off a psycho atheist professor (Kevin Sorbo!), demonized Muslims and rewarded a lippy feminist with cancer. No one dies this round, and there are even a couple overtures to non-believers, though only so they can provide the film’s timid but fierce heroes with ammo against them. “Duck Dynasty”’s Willie Robertson doesn’t return, but his show still gets a gratuitous plug, and the characters really, really want you to buy a Prius.
Otherwise it’s business as usual, from the leftfield appearances of Christian rock arena act the Newsboys — do they only play this one small, idyllic but always besieged Arkansas town? — to the paranoid fantasy that drives the series: that religion (well, just Christianity) is under attack by elitist jerks. Once again heretical forces are marshaling to destroy a pleasant churchgoer: one Grace Wesley (Melissa Joan Hart, atoning for all those years playing a demonic teenage witch), who teaches at, ahem, Martin Luther King Jr. High. It’s telling of the screenwriters’ slimy goals that her crime is anodyne: She merely mentioned Jesus in a history class, stopping short of proselytization. Still, the cowardly school board — including, nudge nudge, an evil teachers’ union representative — go in guns blazing, summoning the ACLU to not only get her fired but use her as their opening assault on God.
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That the ACLU goon is played by Ray Wise — the reliable super-ham, as haywire as he was as a heavy in “RoboCop” — provides both professional polish to a stiff, cheap production and kitschy entertainment to a film that would already be an instant camp classic anyway. There are even more familiar (and affordable) faces this go, all overqualified — even Pat Boone as Grace’s sickly but persnickety grandfather, who rhapsodizes about how atheists have no capacity for hope.
The most affable actor, though, is one of the film’s non-pro producers: Also returning is David A.R. White’s scruffy, endearingly accident-prone “Pastor Dave,” who’s as laidback and chill as the film is white hot nuts. Even Pastor Dave gets in on the action this time, standing up against a separate group of secular baddies. He declares war on them, and if that sounds like “God’s Not Dead” has become a Marvel series, then there’s also an inexplicable Marvel-style end-film bumper for the threequel that no one will see because who sits through credits apart from cinephiles and comic book nerds?
Swapping college lectures for a courtroom saga that strains credibility even for a courtroom movie, “2” fumbles through sloppy Christian apologetics you can drive a truck through, all while blowing untold dog whistles. A covertly evangelical high school junior (Hayley Orrantia) has neglectful parents who side with the ACLU while commanding their daughter to pursue an Ivy League education. Grace’s inexperienced lawyer (Jesse Metcalfe) dresses in corduroy jackets, as opposed to Wise’s slick three-piece duds, and rails against diversity. Another returnee, Chinese student-abroad-turned-convert Martin (Paul Kwo), makes plans to conquer his godless homeland for the Lord, but not before getting slapped around by his stern, monstrous pops.
As with the first, “2” has no respect for other cultures, and no interest in entertaining other worldviews beyond its own, all while positing the nation’s number one religion as a willowy victim that must rise up. Compared to the frothing first, this one keeps its cool (again, comparatively) until the final court scene, in which Metcalfe unspools a tinfoil hat rant about how Christians will soon be jailed for their beliefs (or something). The “God’s Not Dead” films are only interested in fanning the flames of a nonsense culture war that, thanks to films like this, may have finally come true. One day, hopefully, we’ll look back and laugh at this psychedelically bizarre era, but the sight of Pat Boone dancing on crutches while crowing to a ceiling “God! You did it!” would be funny in any age.