Movie review: 'Persecuted' fails as a thriller

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The unholy bond between religion and politics is the background for "Persecuted," a confused and confusing thriller about a TV preacher ruined by a sinister government plot.

Written and directed by Daniel Lusko, who has Christian documentaries among his credits, and having ex-GOP Sen. Fred Dalton Thompson of Tennessee and Fox News personality Gretchen Carlson in its cast, you can guess its politics.


Starring: James Remar, Bruce Davison, Fred Dalton Thompson, Gretchen Carlson and Brad Stine.

Rating: PG-13 for violence and thematic elements.

But the targets are less clearly defined than you might expect. There are evil feds and righteous ones. There are veiled attacks on a congressional effort to give all religions equal standing and federal tax money. The president is a devious Clinton look-alike.

However, big-time religion takes it on the chin, too. The most sinister scenes in it take place in the boardroom of a multimillion dollar TV ministry.

So, "fair and balanced," right? Not exactly.

James Remar, who broke out in films 35 years ago with "The Warriors" and later as the villain of "48 Hours," is cast against type as John Luther, an ex-drug addict who now leads Truth Live!, a crusade that he aims to keep above politics, above religious denominations.

Sinister Sen. Donald Harrison (Bruce Davison) is pressuring Luther to endorse The Faith and Fairness Act, something backed by a Coexista-oriented organization called SUMAC.

It's incredibly vague what this will do, but it seems to be some sort of religious tolerance/equality act that will give all religions equal standing and all religions equal access to adherents to other faiths. Luther isn't having it. But he's been warned.

A drive home takes a turn toward the honey trap they've set for him. A girl dies. Luther is on the lam, hunted by the law, as his ministry tumbles into the hands of his opportunistic second-in-command (Christian comic Brad Stine, pretty good).

Luther turns to his wise old dad (Mr. Thompson), who happens to be a Catholic priest, another bit of backstory that is unexplained.

"Those who believe in nothing must bring you down," Dad warns. "You're just a pawn in a political game."

The safe way to approach this is as the thriller it is supposed to be, and as such, "Persecuted" is pretty limp. There's no urgency to the performances, no ticking clock to Luther's desperate bid to clear his name. Mr. Remar, a fine character actor, is utterly miscast as a preacher. He doesn't have the pulpit presence.

Cops don't stop to question a guy (Luther) sitting in a darkened car, wearing a hoodie and watching a suburban house, even though they see him. A hotel clerk is so eager to turn Luther in that she dials up the cops while Luther is waiting for his room key. Missteps like that abound.

More interesting are Luther's repeated entreaties to a supernatural being that isn't keeping him or his family safe, shouted prayers that go unanswered. Luther, however, doesn't lose faith, even when he's confronting the senator.

"Remember what the Lord said ..."

"Oh, STOP with the Lord!"

This slapdash script fails to articulate its basic complaint or identify who, exactly, is persecuting them. Government? The culture? Liberals? Humanists? Jews? U2's Bono, champion of the Coexista bumper-sticker?

You wonder because you can't help but notice this movie's almost all-white cast around the time we see the evangelical son of the Catholic priest rub his rosary beads one last time, and pick up a gun.

Opens Friday.

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