It's interesting to track the growing cinematic sophistication of those preaching/filmmaking brothers of Sherwood Baptist Church -- from "Facing the Giants" to their breakout hit "Fireproof" to their latest film, "Courageous."
Writer Stephen Kendrick and writer-director-actor Alex Kendrick have mastered building suspense, hiding surprises, action beats (chases, shootouts) and even humor, and that makes their latest faith-based drama a cut and many, many edits above "Fireproof" in simple movie terms.
But it also has signs of that sophomore jinx that so many start-up moviemakers suffer after delivering a box-office hit. It's preachier. It mimics moments and the story arc of the last film. Like a pastor so caught up in the moment that he can't see that the air conditioning has given out and the congregation wants to go home, the film travels far beyond its dramatic climax, aiming for an altar call finale.
And in a significant step backward, Alex Kendrick, an adequate actor, returns as star. He has yet to recognize that ineffable spark that makes even a Kirk Cameron ("Fireproof") more interesting to watch than a fellow who is comfortable in the pulpit, perfectly in sync with his story's message, but not charismatic.
"Courageous" is a challenge to "men of courage," to fathers to measure up to the biblical definition of the word. It follows four Albany, Ga. (the home of Sherwood Baptist), sheriff's deputies who are tested by the small city's gang and drug problems, something the sheriff identifies, through statistics, as being the product of kids growing up in fatherless homes. The deputies -- Adam (Alex Kendrick), Nathan (Ken Bevel), Shane (Kevin Downes) and David (Ben Davies) -- are close enough friends to talk about their lives, with Adam and Nathan pointing to God and the Bible as their guideposts for how to live those lives.
Adam frets over the father he wants to be to his daughter and aspiring track star teenage son. Nathan is trying to keep his 15-year-old daughter beyond the reach of "saggy pants" older teens who are nothing but trouble to girls that age. Shane and David have different backgrounds and just listen, patiently, to their proselytizing colleagues.
Nathan wonders "where all the good fathers went to," and demonstrates a good father's vigilance when he asks a would-be gangbanger (Donald Howze) to "explain the purpose of the relationship" the kid wants with his daughter, Jade. Derrick has just asked her to go "hang out," and is seriously put out. That's Nathan's teachable moment with Jade (Taylor Hutcherson): "If he shows no respect for us, he won't respect you."
The story drags in a hard-working immigrant, Javier (Robert Amaya), whose complaints to God about losing his job are met in a "the Lord will provide" instant by a mistaken identity hire that brings him into the orbit of the deputies.
"Courageous" is often a soapy melodrama, but that doesn't mean there aren't moving moments -- a eulogy, a father's desperate efforts to stop a carjacking. And there's more humor, toying with stereotypes, playing around with miscommunication.
The message delivered isn't subtle, with Kendrick delivering toss-away lines that suggest he doesn't even tolerate "the option" of divorce. But the bigger message might be that the Kendricks haven't sold out, "gone Hollywood" or watered down their Baptist beliefs based on efforts to reach an audience beyond the faithful.
1 1/2 stars (out of 4)
STARRING: Alex Kendrick, Ken Bevel, Ben Davies, Kevin Downes
DIRECTOR: Alex Kendrick
RUNNING TIME: 124 minutes
RATING: PG-13 for some violence and drug content.
THE LOWDOWN: Faith-based drama about four law enforcement officers who struggle with fatherhood.