Directed by Richard Dutcher. Starring John Pentecost, Seamus Hurley, Desean Terry, Malayika Singley, Lynn Carr, Michael Buster, Matthew Brown, Richard Dutcher. (2000, PG, 118 min.)
REVIEWED By Marc Savlov, Fri., Aug. 25, 2000
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.