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New Release Review - RISEN

Following the crucifixion of Jesus, a Roman soldier investigates the disappearance of his body.



Review by Eric Hillis (@hilliseric)

Directed by: Kevin Reynolds

Starring: Joseph Fiennes, Tom Felton, Peter Firth, Cliff Curtis



Whether you take the events presented in Risen as 'gospel' fact or merely a compelling story plucked from a book best regarded as no more than a great piece of historical fiction, Reynolds' film is arguably the best example of its type since the days when Hollywood studios poured their full resources into 'tales of the Christ'.



In recent years, movies aimed at a Christian audience have been making an increasingly significant impact at the US box office. Much like horror movies, these films have a guaranteed audience, with many Churches busing their congregations en masse to Sunday afternoon screenings. These films generally fade away after that opening weekend, but given their low budgets, the cash taken on that first Sunday is enough to turn a huge profit. Whether or not the people making these films actually believe in their messages is debatable, but what's for sure is that, with the exception of Darren Aronofsky's Noah, which didn't court the Christian crowd in such a specific way, the movies have been made by journeymen and are low on production value.
Not so Risen. With a $20 million budget, veteran director Kevin Reynolds at the helm and a cast headlined by Joseph Fiennes, this is something of a game-changer for faith based films. Unlike Ridley Scott's Exodus: Gods and Kings, Reynold's film doesn't pussy-foot around the supernatural aspect of its Bible tale in a misguided attempt to appeal to non-believers as much as the devout; this is the Jesus of 'the good book', complete with all his magical powers, a superhero in sandals. Believing in Jesus should be no more a prerequisite for appreciating Risen than belief in wookies is for enjoying Star Wars.
Set in the immediate aftermath of Jesus's crucifixion and subsequent disappearance of his corpse from its cave tomb, a ruthless servant of Rome, Tribune Clavius (Joseph Fiennes) is drafted in to investigate the disappearance and quell a potential uprising among the Israelites ahead of the arrival of Caesar on a Middle Eastern visit. What follows is a largely fascinating and unique take on a well-worn story, one that had this non-believer fully invested. Reynolds and co-writer Paul Aiello do a magnificent job in creating the verisimilitude of this specific time and place; you can almost taste the dust, and small details like the blood red Roman seal applied to the ropes keeping a heavy rock in place in front of Jesus's tomb remind us of what a visually interesting filmmaker Reynolds is.
One of Hollywood's most under-rated directors, Reynolds was victimised over Waterworld, a movie written off by many critics before its release, but which actually turned a healthy profit and turned out to be a thrilling and brilliantly constructed take on the post-apocalyptic genre. It seems strange to look back on that debacle now, in an age where directors regularly walk away unscathed from box office flops far larger in scale than the Costner vehicle. Reynolds is one of those few mainstream directors who can safely helm a huge budget production while adding his personal stamp, and Risen returns to the theme of his underseen 1988 war movie The Beast, in which Jason Patric's Russian tank commander switches allegiance in joining with a band of Afghans during the Russian invasion of their land. (It's interesting to observe the uncanny similarity in appearance between Fiennes and Patric). Here, the Russians have been swapped for the Romans, but the story is essentially the same.
While it's a gritty and bloody movie, surprisingly so for a film aimed at Church congregations, Reynolds injects some wry humour in much the same way Spielberg did with Schindler's List, and a hilarious gag about Mary Magdalene's 'career' probably won't go over well with the target audience. Not so effective is a pair of comedy guards, whose broad English working class accents really snap you out of the movie. If there's one aspect that's dogged Reynold's work it's his tin ear when it comes to accents (Costner's Robin Hood anyone?).
Whether you take the events presented in Risen as 'gospel' fact or merely a compelling story plucked from a book best regarded as no more than a great piece of historical fiction, Reynolds' film is arguably the best example of its type since the days when Hollywood studios poured their full resources into 'tales of the Christ'.
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