Sunday, October 2, 2011

Courageous: A Review


I will never fault Courageous for being upfront about its reason for being: the closing credits point out that Sherwood Pictures (the makers of the film) is a ministry of Sherwood Church (emphasis mine).  For those of us who speak Christianese, when something is a 'ministry', it means that one will use those tools at their disposal to further the message of Christ (that one must no longer live for him/herself but for Jesus Christ and be a witness for Christ to others so that they in turn will receive forgiveness from God and salvation for their souls).  I have nothing against the message of both Christ and Courageous itself (and can agree with both).  However, I am an "art before religion" film viewer/reviewer, and on that level I have much to fault Courageous with. 

There are four men in the Dougherty County Sheriffs Department: the de facto leader Adam Mitchell (writer/producer/director Alex Kendrick), his partner and friend Shane (Kevin Downes), David the rookie (Ben Davies), and Nathan (Ken Bevels), formerly with the Fulton County (aka Atlanta) Sheriffs Department now back to his hometown. Nathan gets a rude awakening on his return: Courageous opens with him innocently filling his truck up.  Just before he leaves the gas station, he sees the windshield is dirty, so he goes to clean it...while leaving the truck running.  Finding no water at his pump, he walks over to the next one...while leaving the truck running.  And wouldn't you know it, someone tries to steal his truck.  He rushes to the vehicle, holding on desperately.  In the melee, the truck crashes, the thief escapes, and we see why Nathan was so desperate to keep his truck: his baby son is inside.

In any case, we learn from the captain that statistics show that a majority of the criminals they deal with have one common factor: most come from fatherless homes.  This gets Adam to thinking, not just about the criminals he encounters, but about his own children.  In the most original of circumstances, we find that Adam loves his daughter Emily (Lauren Etchells) very, very much, but is removed emotionally from his son Dylan (Rusty Martin).  Adam cannot comprehend Dylan's passion for running and certainly won't participate in a Father/Son 5-K race, even though Dylan has a passion for running. 

Of course, the other members of the department have their own daddy issues.  Nathan is happily married with three kids, but he never knew his birth father (whether the fact that Nathan is black has anything to do with that, one can only guess), and his daughter Jade (Taylor Hutcherson) cannot comprehend why he is so strict about his 15-year-old daughter not dating until she's 17.  Shane is divorced and only sees his son every two weeks or so.  David is young and unmarried, but he has a secret of his own (which we'll get into more later).  Into this mix we throw in Javier (Robert Amaya), a construction worker recently laid off and in desperate financial straits.  He has a wife and two children to support, and while he's extremely anxious, he does have faith in the Lord Jesus that he will provide.

As it so happens, Adam's building a shed, one which Dylan has no interest in helping with.  As it so happens, Shane knows a guy who can help Adam build his shed, who just happens to be named Javier.  As is so happens, Shane's Javier ISN'T our Javier, but as it so happens, Adam calls out our Javier who just so happens to be standing in the middle of the alley behind Adam's house (and just for good measure, Adam asks our Javier something along the lines of whether our Javier has permission to work...gotta be careful with them Mexicans in Georgia, don't we?).  Will wonders never cease.

Well, as is the case with life, tragedy rears its head.  Emily is (conveniently) killed off, and within Adam's heartbreak, he finally appears to understand he has another child, a male child, one that he's been neglecting all these long years.  Therefore, with the statistics still on his mind, and Dylan still physically with him (if not emotionally), Adam reaches a conclusion: he not only hasn't been a good enough father, but fatherlessness (both physical and emotional) are unbiblical.  With that, he persuades the other men in his 'wolf pack' (though he doesn't use that term, I felt like adopting it): Nathan, Shane, David, and Javier, to join him in a Resolution, a call to be better fathers.  (Side note: I wonder how this is any different from the Promise Keepers of recent memory, other than perhaps that there isn't a big call in Courageous to be better husbands as well as better fathers, but I digress).  It's here that we learn David's secret: back in college or high school, he knocked up a cheerleader, and while he knows of his daughter, he's been too frightened to have any contact with her.  With a little help from Nathan (who finds this the opportune time to share the message of Christ and lead David into salvation), David also steps up to the plate (helpfully accompanied by the requisite song by Christian super-group Third Day.  How big are they?  They had their name copyrighted). 

However, there comes a point in Courageous where a moral test is placed before them.  Javier, who has found employment at a factory, is being offered a manager's position...if he is willing to falsify shipment records.  Adam discovers that someone has been stealing drugs from the evidence room, and who could it be now?  Throw in a gun battle with three gang members (one of whom was the truck thief in the beginning, and one of whom, curiously enough, is the kid Jade is interested in), and we end Courageous with a figurative call to arms by Adam at the pulpit, asking where are the men of courage. 

How do you know Courageous is a 'Christian' film?  Well, you have Christian supergroup Casting Crowns (a band that revels in its ability to lecture the listener to how he/she is nowhere near living the Christian life they should be) sing the title song.  Don't get me wrong: I like Casting Crowns, I even like Third Day (copyright, though sometimes their Southern rock style tends to make their songs sound the same).  I even like and approve of Courageous' message.  What I can't approve of is how clumsy the film actually is in terms of filmmaking.  With this, Letters to God, and Seven Days in Utopia, I'm beginning to despair if Christians are truly capable of making good films.  They can make movies, and I understand the financial limitations (should I use this money to aid the orphan and widow, or should I use this money to hire actors?).  However well their intentions, a filmmaker should concentrate on making a good movie, not sending out a message.  Just as I take movies to task for lecturing me about the environment (Avatar), I take movies to task when their whole reason for being is to show me the Way, the Truth, and the Life.

In terms of the technical aspects of Courageous, it is sometimes painful to watch.  The scenes between Amaya's Javier and Angelita Nelson's Carmen were so awful and atrocious in terms of acting I actually covered my eyes and held my head in my hands out of the sheer horror of their scenes together.  I am almost tempted to wonder if director Kendrick was filming a rehearsal between Amaya and Nelson and decided it be cheaper to put that in the film rather than get actual performances out of them.

Of course, Kendrick (who looks to me like Dan Aykroyd), did himself no favors with his one-note performance.  As an actor, he makes a pretty weak director.  As a director, he makes a heavy-handed screenwriter (along with his brother Stephen).  As a screenwriter, he makes a horrible actor.  Kendrick's performance shows that he is just a preacher who has to hire himself to be in front of the camera. Renee Jewel as his wife Victoria gives a pretty awful performance too, her line readings coming off as line readings.  Another atrocious and awful scene is when Adam and Victoria are mourning the loss of their daughter together.  You'd think this would call for great emotional outpouring, but they just cannot get across just how awful it is to lose their child. Martin (who looks like Michael Cera and who curiously enough, has his father Rusty Martin Sr. also in the movie) is so blank as the "angry" young teen.  While Bevel was better as Nathan, he couldn't communicate the sadness or hurt or anger that comes from being an abandoned child.  When he finally faces his long-absent (and dead) father, he reads his note of forgiveness with the same passion one reads a shopping list. Davies' rookie got the naive young man down right, but when he has to come to terms with both his long-abandoned daughter and how Christ can change his life, there is nothing there.

Part of Courageous' major flaws come from the script by the Kendrick brothers.  There were great opportunities there that in spite of their film track record (Flywheel, Facing the Giants, and Fireproof), they just couldn't take hold of.   Take Dylan's passion for running.  We don't actually see him run by himself, but only just coming back from his long run.  Why does he love running so much?  I picture a montage of him, alone, dusk coming in, remembering how many times he's yearned for his father's love/approval, how he has always been put aside in favor of his sister.  He starts running faster and angrier, and once he reaches the house, his anger has so filled his heart he keeps running.  Maybe by running he's running away without actually running away.  A moment of great potential, but it's never there.

There are also moments that just don't make any sense.  In the first of two dramatic chase scenes, Nathan (who's teamed up with David), is telling his partner where to locate him.  David, however, has no idea what the streets in that area of town are, and is driving around trying to find them.  Are we really suppose to believe that a man who's been away for a few years knows all the streets in town but a man who's been there for a year (which I figure is the time frame for a rookie) doesn't?  Also, I don't deny that God can work miracles as he did for Javier by providing him a job with Adam so quickly, but the whole thing seems so ludicrous and preposterous.  It relies too much on a whole chance series of coincidences to be believed.  Finally, when Javier is given the opportunity to move up in exchange for committing fraud, the first thing I though was, "he's being tested".  The fact that the acting by the 'managers' gave it away sucks all the suspense out of it.  The stealing of evidence by one of the fellow officers comes so out of the blue (no pun intended) it feels almost tacked in for dramatic effect, and the mystery is solved pretty quickly.  What should be a moment of devastation to Adam, who not only has to see his friend break the law but more importantly break the Resolution comes across as almost bored.  Many wasted opportunities.

I also take the Kendrick Brothers to task for some truly ignorant suppositions.  First, note that all the criminals in Courageous happen to be black and stereotypical gang members (side note: given how Derrick--Donald Howze--has a tattoo on his neck one is genuinely surprised that it never raised any alarm bells with either Jade or her sheriff father).  The gang leader, T.J. (T.C. Stallings), is this big, tough, scowling man (in the concluding chase, it takes about four men to hold him down), but we don't know if he was fatherless.  Maybe he was just greedy.  Note also that the only man whose father abandoned him and had children with other women was also black.  Second, I note that Adam asked Javier whether he had permission to work.  Wonder if he'd asked the same if say...David, happened to show up. 

If the Kendrick boys had wanted real cleverness, why not make David a high school dropout in need of work and Javier a cop (or if it makes you feel better, the gang leader). 

Finally, the entire premise of Courageous has flaws.  It is based on the idea that fatherless men commit more crimes than those from two-parent homes.  I won't dispute that claim, but I do wonder if it ever occurred to them that there are other factors, such as poverty and the glamorization of the criminal lifestyle (I'm talking to you, Scarface), that also add to crime.  For a movie that deals with how absentee fathers are a major contributor to crime, Courageous never tackles the issue from the criminal's side.  We can only guess that those in the gang have no fathers.  Instead, three of our five main characters are married, the one that has a fatherless child has a.) a daughter, and b.) a toddler (hardly the source of a major crime wave), and the other is divorced and HIMSELF turns out to be a criminal (he does mention that his parents divorced, so does that mean that men from divorced families then commit crimes?). 

Side note: I found it curious in Courageous that when Adam asked the men when they first thought of themselves as 'men', NONE of them even suggested that they might have become men when they had lost their virginity (which used to be called once 'becoming a man').  I know this film is from a Christian background, but even among the Christian men I know sex is not a forbidden topic...forbidden action if unmarried perhaps, but not off-limits.  However, I do note that my experience shows that those who wear 'purity rings' tend to lose their virginities sooner than those who don't make that pledge.  Wonder if the Kendrick boys will ever make a movie about THAT

I figure Javier was in many ways the comic relief (as all fat men tend to be).  There was a lot of comedy in Courageous that was hammered in and that didn't strike me as funny.  You had Adam inadvertedly telling his superior "I love you", when he had previously been talking to his wife.  You had Nathan's wife switching the yogurt to baby food without him really giving it any attention, and an entire scene when Javier attempts to convince a gang member that he is a major crime kingpin (throwing in a few words in Spanish in a menacing word for good measure, although he was really discussing what he would like to eat--as all fat men tend to do.  I, as an actual Hispanic, would have asked Javi: seriously, you couldn't throw in a good 'Orale, vato loco, que barrio, ese homes'?). 

I also would like to point out that it is only after Emily's death (side note: I always find films that kill off adorable little girls to border on the sadistic) that we get any sense that Adam has any sort of faith system.  I don't remember him ever going to church, or praying over his food, or of having any relationship with Jesus Christ.  For a film about how important fathers (including our Heavenly Father) are in our lives, how Adam is close to being a Christian before his favorite dies we do not know. 

Finally, this may not be important, but it is a curious thing.  I find that the Kendrick Brothers have a certain structure to their films: first a problem, then a committment--primarily to Christ and then to whomever the problem involves (in Fireproof, to wives, in Courageous, to children), and then resolution.  While there's nothing wrong with that, when our five men of courage make their resolutions, it appears they are in the exact same grove where the firefighter in Fireproof did the exact same thing.  It is not a good sign when your mind starts wandering off to a previous film that appears to be repeating the same event you are watching. 

Side note: here again, another lost opportunity by a clumsy director.  Our five men are making the same resolution.  What a great opportunity to have them interchange the dialogue, especially the parts of the resolution that are of particular concern to each of them (for Javi, to provide for his children, for Adam, to be an example, etc.).  Alex Kendrick at least tried for that, but the results are pretty weak.

Courageous has a great message and is a labor of love (like the type of productions Judy Garland & Mickey Rooney were always going for in their 'let's put on a show' enthusiasm).  I give them an "A" for Effort, but in terms of cinema, I put the quality of production ahead of the message.  Structurally unsound and heavy-handed, Courageous has too many flaws to make it a good film if judging by standards of filmmaking.  On that level, Courageous is remarkably timid. 


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