Some stories shun a theme or philosophy or moral—they are meant purely for enjoyment. No one gets much moral edification from The Three Musketeers, but it remains a classic because we enjoy reading it. Die Hard has remained popular not because of any deep and lasting truths, but because it’s macho eye candy. These movies aren’t lesser pieces of art, per se. Like a delicious piece of chocolate, well-made “fluff films” have their place.
Beyond the Mask tries to be both fluffy adventure film and Christian exploration of redemption. Set at the beginning of the American Revolution, the story follows former assassin William Reynolds. Reynolds, hoping to become a gentleman, is instead left injured and penniless when his devious East India Company boss plants a carriage bomb on his horse-driven wheels. The assassin assumes the unlikely identity of an English countryside preacher until he discovers that his former boss is the uncle of the pretty young parishioner he wants to marry. To America he goes, and becomes a colonial Zorro who saves America from steampunk bombs that twist the inventions of Ben Franklin.
A few moments indeed fulfilled the unusual premise’s promise. The scene where Reynolds runs across rooftops and through random houses in Philadelphia bursts with an adventurous energy. In a quieter moment, a dreaming Reynolds relives his regrets as he tries to prevent one man from beating another—but the abuser looks back at him with his own face. Like the similar scene in Darren Aronofsky’s Noah, Reynolds gets a peek into the evilness of his own heart. But unlike Noah, where Russell Crowe’s character leaves with a kind of despairing misanthropy, Reynolds realizes that he needs redemption.
However, the film tumbles wholeheartedly into many of the flaws of Christian filmmaking. You can tell the Burns brothers really, really wanted to make a big-budget action flick. They didn’t have the budget, though. The fire from explosions was obviously computer-generated, and several backgrounds looked like green screens. The fight choreography, too, looks ludicrously staged—the East India Company baddies’ speed and martial prowess compare favorably with the Storm Troopers. All of this could be forgivable. Many cutting-edge films use CGI and choreography that will look laughable in two years.
The Burns brothers started out with a shaky concept, however. It’s no easy task to combine a “fluff film” plot with a deep sense of morality. A few films have done it well—take the 2002 version of The Count of Monte Cristo, which explores the concept of revenge through a largely Christian lens. Beyond the Mask’s Christian moralizing comes across as too sincere, too heavy-handed, though.
“Only God can give us new lives,” says Charlotte, Reynolds’ love interest. While this is indeed true, and perhaps a profound line in a better place, it is one of many religious platitudes crammed into a very plotty and increasingly far-fetched story.
The Burns brothers try to cram in so much plot that vital character development is thrown overboard. The villain Charles Kemp, played by Jonathan Rhys-Davies, has plenty of chances to growl and explain his evil plans, but we never get to see him as anything else. Love interest Charlotte acts woefully Victorian, an earnest but weak young lady who seems surprised when she knocks out a soldier who is about to kill Reynolds.
Perhaps, if the Burns brothers had been less ambitious and given their characters a bit more nuance, this film would have been fun. As it is, it reminded me of a 1950s adventure movie-of-the-week: A fun afternoon out for the family, but little else.
While I might go on, my interview with the film’s first writer, Paul McCusker, expresses a lot of intriguing thoughts I won’t repeat here. That interview can be found here.