The Bible is the best-selling book of all time, thanks to its popularity in churches and hotels. But Kevin Reynolds's Risen, a thriller set in 33 A.D., had the brainstorm: Would it be more popular if we rewrote it like an airport paperback read on a plane? It's the New Testament meets CSI: Jerusalem, starring ambitious — and fictitious — Roman cop Clavius (Joseph Fiennes), Pontius Pilate's top enforcer, who's been tasked to suppress rebellion in the Holy Land, where a new messiah anoints himself every week.
To the Roman officials, this Nazarene what's-his-name is just another crackpot, or, as Clavius groans, "a crazy, poor, dead Jew." Shrugs Pilate, "I had to crucify him." Nothing personal. The Romans sometimes executed hundreds of people a day. Pilate (Peter Firth) doesn't seriously think Jesus — here called Yeshua in the movie's pretense of sounding historically accurate — would supplant his own Mars and Minerva. Jesus has to go because he started a small riot in Jerusalem's most sacred temple. (Picture Fox News's outrage when a Ferguson protester burned a CVS, and triple it.) And he also has to go because in the Roman Empire, religion is politics. When the Caesar family claim to be gods, some guy convincing his own followers to call him the King of the Jews isn't just cuckoo — it's treasonous.
No matter what your take is on Jesus's death, you have to admit that this true-life assassination had a staggering epilogue. Two thousand years ago, a young man — arguably black — was murdered by the local police. (To avoid controversy, Risen cleverly cast its Jesus to be played by Cliff Curtis, a Maori actor famous for being able to pass as various ethnicities.) The victim's friends wrote and shared defenses of his actions — early viral think pieces — and, two millennia later, the dead man is a deity. Imagine time-traveling to 4016 and discovering a billion people praying to Malcolm X.
The best parts of Risen plod along with a flat-footed realism that reminds us that everything that happened after Jesus died was a surprise. When Pilate discovers that the zealot's corpse has disappeared, he panics. Those damned disciples must have stolen it to start a revolution — awful timing, as Emperor Tiberius is visiting the city in two weeks. Like an angry sergeant in an NYPD drama, Pilate orders Clavius to find the body or else, saddling him with a newbie partner, Lucius (Tom Felton), who has a wimpy blonde mustache that looks embarrassed to be clinging to his face.
Clavius, a pagan, never considers that the culprit could be Christ himself. "The disciples are key," he barks to Lucius. "Find them, find him." The investigation section of the film ticks by like an episode of 24, or really 48, the number of hours before a rotten corpse is unrecognizable. (At least Kiefer Sutherland gets tidy morgues with cold crisper drawers.) The whole thing is sillier than the bleached taupe cinematography would have you believe. I snorted happily when Clavius slammed an hourglass on his desk instead of a digital clock, and giggled at the recognizable clichés disguised by togas: Clavius's late night in the office hunting for clues in the shroud of Turin ("Sweat and herbs"), his forensic examination of the broken ropes that sealed Jesus's tomb ("It's as if they burst!"). Other nods are more pointed about how we treat today's zealots, as when Clavius assumes the disciples have a stockpile of weapons, and later likens the pain of crucification to "sucking air through a wet cloth" — a description of waterboarding.
When Clavius and Lucius start hauling in eyewitnesses, Risen becomes a good centurion/bad centurion farce. Before a stakeout, when Clavius asks his soldiers who among them can identify Mary Magdalene (Maria Botto), the world's most famous prostitute, half of the barracks raise their hands. After Magdalene stonewalls, Lucius offers, "Should I have her stoned?" Maybe that threat explains why Stephen Hagan plays the disciple Bartholomew like the second coming of Sean Penn's Spicoli. No wonder Clavius rolls his eyes when this half-brained hippie says Jesus promised him eternal life.
Eventually, sensible Clavius is stunned by the supernatural twist we all know is coming. Risen is the rare movie I wished were more banal. All this pragmatism is a plot trick: If even Clavius scraps science for spirituality, then the movie figures its audience also has to be swayed. The upside is that at least the resurrected Jesus doesn't really preach. Instead, he's happy just to kick it with his buddies and transform a leper into a Mark Ruffalo clone. In fact, Curtis plays his Jesus so cool that he still seems half-dead, or maybe just high on Bartholomew's stash. No wonder Clavius might prefer serving chill-dude Jesus to Pilate, a tyrant who threatens to reassign him to "a post in Hell."
At this, I raised an eyebrow. Wouldn't a Roman pagan say "Hades"? Then I realized that Risen had suckered me into trusting that it was more realistic than the cop thrillers on TV. My penance: four fistfuls of popcorn, the apropos communion for a goofy night at the movies.