Despite a title that screams "recruitment film," "God's Army" is surprisingly good-natured and non-offensive, especially for the non-believers in the audience. Even as characters are told that they're heroes and martyrs for giving their lives to the church, you don't have to buy what the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is selling to appreciate the humanistic portrait painted of this -- um -- exotic group. As the film has it, Mormon missionaries are a well-meaning if imperfect and even spiritually clumsy group.
It begins when a 19-year-old Mormon missionary from Kansas, Elder Allen (Matthew Brown), is assigned to L.A. for his first mission. There, he's mentored by Elder Dalton (Richard Dutcher, who also wrote, directed and produced the movie). At 29, Dalton is so ancient by Mormon missionary standards that the boys call him "Pops." Both have troubled pasts, yet their mission doesn't allow them to focus on their problems. Their daily mantra is "Let's do some good out there."
What most of us know going into this film is accurately represented: that missionaries are young, don't get paid, live with a bunch of strangers far away from their homes, and can't drink, date, or do drugs, including caffeine. What we perhaps often don't care to realize -- and this is the film's strongest point -- is that missionaries are not merely door-to-door doctrine salesmen, but human beings. They flirt, play practical jokes on one another, and tell bad jokes. And they doubt. They doubt the church, their faith, and their mission.
But there are flaws with this low-budget flick. The most appalling moment is the requisite "miracle" scene near the end. Also, the screening I saw on Saturday night had such poor sound quality that some of the dialogue was barely audible over the blaring soundtrack.
The stated mission of Zion Films, the movie's distributor, is to "strengthen and celebrate the faith of the Latter Day Saints." No doubt the producers also hope to introduce their faith, doctrine and culture to as many people as possible. They're getting a lot of bang for their buck with this visit. Keep in mind that "God's Army" is not a documentary about the Mormon faith. You won't learn about the faith per se, but you may just learn to see those who make up their flock as ordinary people.
GOD'S ARMY (PG)
Written, Produced, & Directed by Richard Dutcher
Originally Released: March 10, 2000
Reviewed by E. Benjamin Kelsey
** 1/2 [2 1/2 stars out of four]
Jehovah Witnesses' notoriety as the Avon Ladies of religion, ever-ready to knock on your door and offer up a magazine chock full of things you definitely need, has been the source of many jokes on television and in movies for years. Less often, though sometimes more mean-spiritedly, the same has been done about the other door-to-door salesmen of faith, the LDS - aka Mormon - missionaries.
Now writer/producer/director Richard Dutcher is serving his own mission - to change the stereotype of Mormon missionaries, and Mormonism in general, by giving us a movie from their point of view. No, not a documentary or a church promotional video, but an actual movie, in theaters, popcorn and all.
Such a feat may sound like a pet project for any steadfast believer who's used to seeing the extent of Mormon cinema as ORGAZMO and Mormon-filmmaker Neil LaBute's anything-but-religious films, IN THE COMPANY OF MEN and YOUR FRIENDS & NEIGHBORS. But instead of jumping on an immediate soapbox and creating a purely self-serving and self-redeeming film, Dutcher has produced GOD'S ARMY, a surprisingly intimate yet humble film that remains as objective as possible, coming from the eyes, mind, words, and heart of a true believer.
GOD'S ARMY tells the story of Elder Brandon Allen (Matthew Brown), a young man just arrived from Kansas to serve a mission in Los Angeles for the LDS church. "You're not in Kansas anymore, Elder," a welcoming missionary greets him. Trite, but true, something any one of us might have said in the same situation. One day in L.A. definitely holds a whirlwind of experiences for a naive 19-year-old.
Immediately, Elder Allen is introduced to his new companion, Elder Dalton. At the ripe old age of 29, Elder Dalton (played by Dutcher) is the oldest serving missionary in the district, someone the lot of 19 and 20 year old missionaries affectionately refer to as "Pops". As we quickly learn, Pops is the stalwart missionary, eager to get the job done, no questions asked. In fact, even as Elder Allen carries his luggage back to an apartment he's yet to see but will be living in for some considerable time, Pops is stopping and knocking on doors, asking anyone who'll give him the chance if they'd like to hear a brief message.
It's all a bit overwhelming for Elder Allen, who's internally dealing with the issues of a family falling apart back home - a mother who's asked for her name to be taken off the records of the Church, a stepfather about to go to prison. The culture shock - not of being thrust into L.A. from a dinko town in eastern Kansas, but of suddenly being a messenger who lives, sleeps, and breaths religion - is more than a bit jarring. Awestruck by Pops' ability to assert himself towards complete strangers at their own homes, Elder Allen responds, "I could never do that." Without flinching, the no-nonsense Pops tells him, "Yes, you can. You get the next one."
The first day on the job seems too much for Elder Allen, and that night, he finds himself in a bus station, ready to forget the mission and serve his own well-being. Some reverse psychology from Elder Dalton brings him back, but the battle for self-conviction is already underway.
GOD'S ARMY isn't so much about missionary work as it is about attaining a testimony of personal convictions one's never been forced to question before. That being the underlying theme, it's a bit disappointing that the message comes off so wearily in the end. It seems Dutcher wanted to touch base on every key belief, misconception, and stereotype the Mormon church carries, an effort all too time consuming to leave room for character development. Even if Dutcher's overall motive was only to give America a glimpse of what Mormonism is truly about, doing this by way of character study would only have accentuated his cause.
For example, far too often than not, Dutcher puts all emphasis on the events surrounding the missionaries, rather than on how these events are affecting them. The elements of storyline and character are kept too far separated, the focus constantly switching between them. While Dutcher engages himself in a checklist of things Mormons might face while serving a mission, characters are allowed to become subscripts to subplots - and underdeveloped ones at that.
Ironically, it is within these weaker alleys that the most powerful material is awaiting realization. In particular, what could be the most promising aspect of the film concerns a fellow missionary's vehement interest in anti-Mormon literature. Michael Buster undeniably gives the strongest and most professional performance of the group as Elder Kinegar, a missionary whose faith is crumbling under the weight of constantly fueled doubt. What could've served as the film's most poignant device for both believers and non-believers is suppressed so as not to intrude on the above said checklist.
Often, too much leeway is given to tick off the "this and that"'s that should, could, and would only work had they been combined with an examination of a young man's psychology. Instead of demonstrating how Elder Allen views the events on his mission, Dutcher seems assured that merely presenting the two in the same scene will allow the audience to "figure it out", leaving us to guess and internally decide how the young man is being affected.
Still, Dutcher must be applauded for his objectiveness. With a subject as touchy as religion, making a film about your own faith is perhaps the riskiest venture one could take. Seeming presumptuous, even pompous, could be a near guarantee in the hands of a relatively inexperienced filmmaker/screenwriter who's examining their own beliefs. GOD'S ARMY isn't 100% success in that department. A miracle healing in the film is sure to seem highly brazen to some non-Mormons. Yet, at the same time, Dutcher willingly and unbiasedly brings up attributes of the religion that have remained highly controversial and repellent to outsiders for years. And non-Mormons are never presented as wayward souls in need of salvation only Mormons can provide. A scene relating to the contraversial issue of blacks being denied priesthood authority within the Church until 1978 sums up with a black man telling a black missionary, "they're making a fool out of you". And with that, the scene ends. Dutcher doesn't give his valiant Mormon a brilliant explanation to reply with. The conversation is over. The non-Mormon finishes on top. It's a sincerely appreciated gesture.
On the plus side for believers, in a relative way, Dutcher uses his discreet abilities to delicately debunk several untruths often associated with the Church. The fact that Mormons are Christians who read the Bible is humbly clarified during a scene of scripture study. The fact that Mormon missionaries are not paid for their two years of service is confirmed during a modest "get-to-know-you" conversation between Elder Allen and Elder Dalton. Whether the script is on the defense or offense for Mormon beliefs, Dutcher is careful not to paint the Church through bias eyes that forgive and forget any "flaws" the faith may have.
In the acting department, Matthew Brown shows a definite competency for portraying the timid observer; an unsettled outsider who must be thinking a great deal more than they are saying. While Brown is meant to be the main star, the center of the film, if one can be had, is definitely Dutcher's Elder Dalton. He's the mentor, the example, the teacher. In this role, Dutcher does fairly well, but his character seems a bit too impassioned despite his tenacity. It's the smaller actors who outshine the leads hands down when given the chance. The aforementioned Buster, DeSean Terry, and even the nearly missed Jeff Kelly are all impressive as fellow missionaries, and luckily, Dutcher has given the first two semi-substantial parts. The one overall flaw among the actors - not one of them can pass a convincing laugh to save their soul.
All in all, GOD'S ARMY may work best as a curiosity piece. The target audience is unclear. If it's Mormons, there are plenty of moments where identifiableness becomes monotony of things they already know. If it's non-Mormons, there is plenty of humor Dutcher probably doesn't even expect them to get. Yet for all the moments he leaves the non-believers on the back burner, its obvious he's trying his best to appear genuine to both sides, no matter what the scene. Either audience should at least find a buzzing curiousity as to how the LDS faith is first being presented onscreen (in a serious manner). And both audiences may come away a bit surprised, even pleased, with the results.
During the early summer of 1993, I picked up the phone at my apartment in Eugene, Oregon and heard the news from my great and good friend Tim Hansen that he was off to Los Angeles to appear in Dutcher's film, a.k.a. Girl Crazy, a very pleasant little romantic comedy about a guy who loses his girlfriend and tries to win her back. Tim played the part of a guy whom the protagonist meets up with by chance, and who has also just lost his girl, and the two try to figure out what the best approach would be to getting them back. (And Tim gave a pretty good performance in the film. We miss you, kiddo.)
Dutcher was Richard Dutcher, who wrote, directed, and starred in the independently-made picture. Now, seven years later, he is back with a new film, God's Army, about a very different subject altogether: the experiences of L.D.S. (Latter-Day Saints) missionaries working in Los Angeles.*
Young men (and, in recent years, women) are encouraged to serve a mission in their eighteenth or nineteenth year, after graduating from high school and before attending college. It is voluntary work, and you have to save money to go, as missions generally last up to four years. (Serving a mission is also a non-paying job.) The experience tests both one's faith and one's ability to communicate with people, as it involves a lot of knocking on doors and asking total strangers if they would like to hear about the Church. Contact with one's family, friends and the outside world is limited. Transportation is usually by bicycle or on-foot. Dress and grooming is also regulated: white shirt, dark tie and slacks, polished shoes, and hair cut above the ear and the collar.
One must be determined, flexible, and able to take a lot of rejection. Daily study is required to be able to remain focused and to answer any and all questions. God's Army includes a scene where two non-members ask a pair of missionaries why black men could not hold priesthood positions in the Church prior to 1978, and why women cannot hold positions of authority. Missionaries cannot date, so girlfriends and fiancees must wait until their men are finished working in the field before they can get married.
And missionaries are assigned to where they will be working. If they are to serve in Germany, Brazil, or Japan, a crash course is required to learn the language well enough to converse fluently. I have friends whose mission experiences were not so terrific, and friends whose experiences were so profoundly spiritual that they changed for the rest of their lives by them.
Non-L.D.S. members may scratch their heads a bit over some parts of God's Army: What is the Melchizedek priesthood, and why all this business about whether to drink coffee or not? This should in no way affect one's appreciation of the film, as it addresses aspects ranging from coming-of-age to striving to be true to one's principals [sic] and beliefs. It is also very funny in parts, and a unique film that has an ability to stick with you longer than many other films currently appearing in the theaters.
Richard Dutcher made God's Army through a new production company, Zion Films, which has set its sights on making films about L.D.S. life, by L.D.S. members and for both L.D.S. audiences and general audiences. (After the closing credits for God's Army, I realized, to my surprise, that there was no profanity in the film: about the strongest speech one hears is when one character reacts by saying, "Oh -- golly,..." And, guess what: I didn't miss it a bit.) I suspect that Dutcher may be a filmmaker-to-watch in the coming years.
I recently had a chance to speak with him about the making of God's Army,
his own current mission as a filmmaker, what we may look forward to seeing from
him in the future, and the possible constructive uses for an Academy Award
Gregory Avery: I'll start with the inevitable opening question: How did you first become interested in making films?
Richard Dutcher: I first became interested in making movies when I was about six years old. It was Mary Poppins that did it. I was sitting in the movie theater watching what's his name, that little English boy in the movie who gets to float around in the air and dance around with Dick Van Dyke. [Matthew Garber, who levitated with Van Dyke, Karen Dotrice and Ed Wynn during the song I Love to Laugh.] And I was thinking first about how much fun that little actor must have had, and then second how that little kid couldn't act his way out of a wet paper bag and why couldn't I have played that part. Someday I'll do a re-make (and play that same part). So, since early childhood, I haven't really wanted to do anything else. I tried a career behind the counter at 7-11, but it just didn't work out. So I started acting early, then turned to writing in order to create some good parts to play, then turned to producing and directing in order to get my scripts produced so I could have good parts to play.
GA: How did you first become involved with film production?
RD: Girl Crazy was my first film, but I don't really want to talk about it. Enough said. Okay, I'll say more. It was a huge undertaking. It taught me so much about financing and making and selling films. I had to take it, start to finish, for $50,000. By finish I don't mean just a finished answer print. In this case, finish meant delivery of all materials: broadcast quality tape with promotional materials and the works. So, I'm proud of the work I did. I consider it my graduate school in filmmaking because I was there every step of the way. I wrote it, green-lighted it, raised the money, hired all cast and crew, directed, produced, starred, carried it through every step of post-production and marketing. As for the film itself, there are parts of it that are really quite good. Linda Bon was very good as Rachel. Tim Hansen's performance was wonderful. All the Tim/Tommy scenes were great. Rob Sweeney, the cameraman, did a great job with so little money. There are some funny lines and it's good-hearted, but the lack of budget kept me from getting the locations and the coverage I needed. So many of the scenes were filmed in one shot. But it wasn't worth spending four years of my life on. And the screenplay was not worth making. It was really made because [a] young director needed to make a film, any film, before he went nuts and ran naked down the middle of the street (Oh, wait. That was in the movie, wasn't it?). At the end of the day, it was just ninety minutes of pleasant, low-budget fluff. I watched it again just a few months ago. I'm surprised HBO picked it up. But I sure am glad they did.
GA: How is God's Army currently doing in release, both in Utah and in other states?
RD: God's Army is doing wonderfully. Well cross the two million mark in domestic box office within the next couple of weeks. Not bad for a movie that cost $300,000. The exhibitors are surprised at how well the film is doing outside of Utah, but I'm not. We've still got [two-thirds] of the U.S. left to cover, and video/DVD and foreign. So God's Army will keep us busy for a good while yet. So, the film is a huge commercial success for us. As for its critical performance, [there has been a] lot of good response from non-Mormon critics. We have had a couple of scathing reviews, but it seemed pretty evident in the reviews that the critics had a pre-existing problem with Mormons in general.
GA: Was God's Army one of those filmmaking experiences where everything came together easily?
RD: God's Army was incredibly difficult to finance. I spent the better part of four years travelling around meeting with wealthy Latter-Day Saints trying to convince them to invest in the film.
GA: Did you initially conceive of this as a film that would speak to a wide audience, since many experiences by L.D.S. missionaries -- first-time separation from home, practicing one's faith while facing seemingly overwhelming odds, and experiencing both acceptance and rejection from others -- contain universal dramatic themes?
RD: God's Army was made for my own people. I really didn't care whether non-Mormons liked the film at all. I zeroed in on my audience and tried to block out everybody else. Because I knew if I managed to satisfy even this one audience, the film would be successful enough that I could make another film. Also, I'm totally converted to the idea of specialized narrative/dramatic filmmaking. We don't have to make films for the entire world. We can make films for relatively small pieces of the total marketplace. And I think this is how the most interesting movies are going to be made. For instance, I want to see films made by black filmmakers primarily for black audiences. Those films would be so much more interesting than movies made by black filmmakers for the mainstream. And you could take the word "black" out and put in "Mormon" or "Buddhist" or "gay" or whatever. I believe the more specialized you get, the more honest you get and the more universal your story and characters become.
GA: To what extent did you draw upon your own experiences for this film?
RD: God's Army is based on my own experiences as a missionary. I served two years as a missionary in Southern Mexico. Write about what you know, they always say. I don't know why it took me so long to take that particular piece of advice.
GA: Can you give us some idea of how you think commercial cinema has misrepresented the L.D.S. Church? One example that came immediately to mind was how screenwriter Paddy Chayevsky re-wrote the story for the Lerner and Loewe musical Paint Your Wagon in order to introduce a jokesy depiction of polygamy, and thus create a dramatic setup whereby Lee Marvin and Clint Eastwood's characters could set-up house with Jean Seberg's.
RD: One of the main reasons I wanted to make this film is because I was sick and tired of the way Mormons are portrayed in the mainstream: almost always the butt of a joke. Either that or we are misportrayed to the point that we're not even recognizable. Some examples: Goodbye Lover, Donnie Brasco, Orgazmo, even a fleeting reference to radical Mormons in Starship Troopers. Those references deeply offend me. So I came to the realization that if we want our people portrayed accurately, positively, truthfully, we are going to have to do it ourselves. Being a filmmaker and a Latter-Day Saint, I saw myself in the perfect place to do something about it. Not through the mainstream, but through independent film, which can have a powerful effect in the mainstream. And I didn't see any other LDS filmmakers doing anything to help. If anything, with [Neil] LaBute's recent success, the LDS image was taking a good Bash, so to speak. [Neil LaBute, who is L.D.S., lives and works out of Provo, Utah. His recent collection of short plays, Bash, was performed last year off-Broadway, and was subtitled Latter-Day Plays. - GA]
GA: What do you do when you're not involved in the tangles and snares of film production?
RD: I see every movie I have even the slightest desire to see. And I try to read. I'm not too big on most mainstream writers, but I can get a kick out of a good book about first century Christians. My favorite novelists are Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, Chaim Potok, and Larry McMurtry -- go figure. And I spend as much time hanging out with my family as possible. I have three young boys and another child of undetermined gender on the way. And a sexy wife, so that keeps me busy as well. Sometimes, if I really need some space and time to think I go on a "driveabout." Last month I spent three days alone driving around the Southern Utah desert. I highly recommend it.
GA: Any favorite films?
RD: Jaws, It's a Wonderful Life, The Bicycle Thief.
GA: Are there any filmmakers whom you admire, past or present?
RD: John Sayles, for his career more than individual films (although I thought Matewan was brilliant). Scorsese, for his mastery of the medium (I thought Goodfellas could serve as a textbook of the language of cinema). Charlie Chaplin, of course, especially City Lights and Modern Times.
GA: What films are you looking towards making during the next several years?
RD: I see myself making all kinds of films that deal with faith, religion, man's relationship to God and Christ, morality, human relationships, sin, repentance, redemption, damnation, etc. Most of my movies will deal with Mormonism. My faith and the human spiritual and religious experience are what occupy my thoughts, almost constantly. But I think audiences will be surprised (L.D.S. audiences as well as mainstream audiences) at what a deep well of material this will turn out to be. The reason we haven't experienced much in the way of spiritual cinema in the past hundred years is because our filmmakers have rarely been spiritually inclined. I don't want to make any film that lies to people, that leads them to believe something that isn't true or that encourages them to behave stupidly or selfishly. I don't want to add to the world's pain. I hope that all of my movies will help to lift and exalt the audience. All movies teach. All filmmakers are teachers. As such, we're either teaching lies or teaching truth. I hope that all my films are solid and true.
GA: Are there any film performers or artists you would particularly like to have the opportunity to work with?
RD: As a director working with actors: William Hurt, Denzel Washington, among others. As an actor working with directors: John Sayles, the Coen brothers... actually just about anybody except John Waters.
GA: Both Susan Sarandon and Elizabeth Taylor said that they keep their Oscars in the bathroom at home, while Jack Nicholson uses one of his statuettes as a hat stand. What would you do with your Oscar?
RD: I have absolutely no idea. A problem I most likely will never have to confront. Turn it into a lamp?
GA: Finally, I must add that I very much liked the ad line for God's Army, Saving The World -- One Soul at a Time. Whose idea was it?
RD: Yep, that's mine.
Click here to read Gregory Avery's review.
"Alright, let's do some good." It is very early in the morning, but, after having already done two hours of study, Elder Marcus Dalton (Richard Dutcher) is right and raring to embark on another day of work, going from door to door and asking complete strangers if they have already, or would like to, hear something about the L.D.S. Church which might help their lives for the better. Working in relative anonymity, less for himself than for a greater good, Dalton, at age twenty-nine, has devoted almost the entirety of his adult life, foregoing the experience of being a husband and father, to this effort. The five young men who share a house with him, in a Los Angeles suburb, while devoting their selves to several years of missionary work, and to whom Dalton is a friend, a colleague, a mentor and, sometimes, a supervisor, call him "Pops."
God's Army -- the most compassionate film about religion to come out in years -- primarily concerns Elder Brandon Allen (Matthew Brown), who, at the beginning of the film, is shown tumbling out of Kansas and into L.A. International Airport and a waiting Volkswagen van, where the two missionaries who meet him look at him askance and with knowing complicity, as if Allen hasn't any idea what he's letting himself in for. Allen has been assigned Dalton as his companion in missionary work, and no sooner does he disembark from the van than he finds out that he and Dalton are to walk the rest of the way to his new home. "We're going home," Dalton assures Allen, "one door at a time." (Just like in John Cheever's The Swimmer, I thought.) You can practically feel Allen's growing horror at the realization that he's going to have to start to "work" right here and now, without any time to catch his breath, and that he'll probably bungle it, which will only make it worse. (although, as with anything, one can only learn through trying.)
With a slender, sparrow-like face and round-rimmed glasses, Dutcher's character, Dalton, beams with a beautiful sense of benevolent piety and friendliness. He strives to stay on pleasant, open terms with everyone, whether they're fellow L.D.S. members or two girls who are working the streets (they flirt with him gently, and he always responds to their testing his armor for flaws by asking if they read "that book" that he gave them, yet). The picture never condescends to taking us on a tour of the iniquities of Los Angeles -- "Oh, look at all this awful stuff these guys have to put up with!" On the other hand, it shows that Dalton is not an ever-flowing spring of patience and virtue -- he issues reprimands which go unheeded, loses his temper, puts hard demands on himself. The result is that he emerges as one of the most fully-realized, and moving, characterizations of a man of faith since Robert Duvall's The Apostle. Even from a completely objective point-of-view, Dalton's trials and efforts are affecting.
Initially, Allen's character seems a little underwritten -- there are many instances when we would like to learn more about his reactions to certain situations, and we don't. This turns out to be intentional: Allen gradually fills-up within after he is faced with having to find his own reasons for being a missionary, or ultimately end up failing in the attempt. How far can get simply by being competent in one's church activities, doing everything that is expected of you, by rote, and simply being content in coasting along? When does the Word stop being just a set of instructions and becomes something more? At such moments as when Allen must find his own, intrinsically personal, reason for believing, God's Army achieves something extraordinary and touches the strata of films, such as Diary of a Country Priest, that are also fine documents about faith.
Starring Matthew Brown, Richard Dutcher.
Written and directed by Richard Dutcher.
(PG) 117 min.
Opens Nov. 3.
** [2 out of 4 stars]
Not only does Richard Dutcher write, produce and direct this tale of modern Mormon missionaries, his character gets to perform a miracle. While Dutcher may inspire the lame to walk again, he may not make many converts to God's Army who aren't already clean-living citizens of Utah.
God's Army follows the travails of 19-year-old Elder Allen (Matthew Brown) -- Elder is an honorific for some young Mormons -- in Los Angeles. The viewer is made aware of the city's godlessness by the images of nudie bars and homeless men in wheelchairs. Along with four other young men, Allen is taught by the example of Elder Dalton (Dutcher), a passionate missionary who is dying of a brain tumour. Over the next few days, faiths are tested and souls are saved.
Made with a largely non-Mormon (or LDS, for Latter Day Saints) crew in Los Angeles for US $300,000, God's Army has quietly grossed more than US$4 million in the States. Mormonism, which was founded in 1830 after the history of the resurrected Christ's time in the Americas was revealed to a man named Joseph Smith by an angel named Moroni, has been immensely influential in the U.S. and Canada. However, it remains underneath the pop-culture radar, save for Trey Parker's porn comedy Orgazmo (which was vilified by the LDS) and the religion's penchant for polygamy (officially renounced in 1890 but still practiced by some sects).
Thankfully, Dutcher has not made a straight-up recruitment movie. One missionary is seduced away from his path by anti-LDS literature and an African-American LDS is confronted about his church's refusal to allow blacks in high clerical positions until 1978. But when Dutcher shoves aside the tougher questions, God's Army's predictable story, mediocre acting and cloying earnestness become impossible to forgive and too much to endure.
It's not exactly a good movie, but God's Army scores points for not being nearly as bad as it could have been. The story of a young Mormon who goes to Los Angeles on a mission -- any similarities to Orgazmo are purely coincidental -- God's Army, despite the semi-creepy title, isn't the propaganda you might expect. Sure, it's syrupy as all get-out, and I haven't seen an American city look this unreal since Rumble in the Bronx. (Quite a feat, since God's Army was shot on location.) But the film takes faith seriously without proselytizing, and it's surprisingly irreverent at times. (Within limits, of course.) As the crusty Elder Dalton, writer/director/producer Richard Dutcher acts like a buttoned-down version of R. Lee Ermey in Full Metal Jacket; you can't quite tell if he's joking when he says "Let's do some good" as he heads out the door. As the fresh-faced new arrival, Matthew Brown is all dewy eyes and crinkled brow, and the film reliably, if predictably, builds camaraderie between him and his fellow missionaries. In the end, it's not on the level of religion but of drama that God's Army comes up short; the ending seems pat and contrived, and you see each character's inevitable transformation coming a mile away. As a look into a world most have never seen, it still has its interest, though.
Words in Document: 378
That's the inescapable conclusion about "God's Army," a movie about religious faith written, produced and directed by former Mormon missionary Richard Dutcher. He also co-stars as the most senior of a group of young Mormon missionaries in Los Angeles.
Although its main story concerns Elder Allen's search for faith, the movie's notion of finding faith seems to apply only to Mormons, rather...
[The rest of the review can be purchased online.]
Director: Richard Dutcher
Starring: Seamus Hurley, John Pentecost, Richard Dutcher, Matthew Brown, Michael Buster, Lynn Carr, Malayika Singley, Desean Terry
(PG, 118 min.)
Somebody, somewhere, someday is going to have the presence of mind to double-bill this with Orgazmo, and why not? Both films deal with young, rookie Mormon missionaries fulfilling their obligations in the heathen climes of Los Angeles. In fact, they're almost identical, although the film by Trey Parker (of later South Park fame) contains a heck of a lot more porn jokes than its upright twin God's Army, which instead focuses on the trials and tribulations of being God-fearing in a generally godless society. Dutcher, who also stars as the missionary's elder, Elder Dalton (who, at the ripe old age of 29, is called "pops" by his charges and is already succumbing to a deadly illness) is, in real life, a devout Mormon; it's plain to see, however, that he's just as devout a filmmaker. While God's Army isn't going to win any mainstream awards that I can think of, you've got to hand it to Dutcher: No major Hollywood studio would have ever touched this tale on its own, and so it's in the true spirit of DIY, indie filmmaking that God's Army has been made. Whatever your opinion of Mormonism might be, Dutcher's film is an accomplishment by the very nature of its existence. Whether anyone outside of the Church is going to want to sit through it is another matter entirely. My guess is: nothing doing. God's Army tackles the faith, and lack thereof, of a group of missionaries who are stuck in the low-rent L.A. boonies, and whose daily schedule consists of knocking on doors and trying to convert the wicked, interspersed with meditation, home prayer, and general good deeds. Anyone who's ever had one of these suit-and-tie fellows knock unexpectedly on the front door while the Big Game was on is going to go into this with a chip on their shoulder -- it's too often cool to disrespect organized religion, and more specifically, those whose faiths encourage them to pop up outside your door. God's Army isn't likely to win any converts in the theatre, but at the very least it's as inoffensive a proselytization as I've seen in some time. There's Elder Dalton, who begins each day with the motto "Let's go do some good," and then proceeds to drive a newcomer, Elder Allen (Brown), up the wall with his rock-hard piety. There's also Elder Kinegar (Buster), who unwisely spends his time reading anti-Mormon tracts in the hopes of outwitting the enemy, but who ultimately finds himself in a lose-lose situation. And then there's the usual host of oddball characters, who seem on hand only to help explain some of the more contradictory schisms within the Church (most notably the African-American who coolly dismisses the Mormons' late-breaking acceptance of black men as senior Church officials. Even he doesn't seem too convoked, though). The acting is uniformly passable, and while Dutcher isn't what I'd call the most imaginative of directors, his style (or lack thereof) is at least unobtrusive. He allows us a rare glimpse into the inner workings of the Mormon faith. Is this cutting-edge stuff? Not really. God's Army plods along at a steady pace, and various upsets such as a bona fide miracle and a runaway missionary don't seem to resonate as much as the filmmaker perhaps hoped. Maybe the worst thing that can be said about Dutcher's film is that it neither makes you want to join up for service as Mormon missionary nor is it so terribly preachy that nonbelievers are likely affronted by its forthrightness. At it's best, it's a wishy-washy treatise that fails to elicit much of any reaction, a Mormonized After-School Special where right predictably wins out and good deeds are rewarded.
* 1/2 [1 1/2 stars out of 4]