God’s Not Dead 2: Religion stands trial in spiritual drama

Fans of the 2014 surprise box-office hit “God’s Not Dead” will surely be thrilled with its brand new sequel, the aptly-named “God’s Not Dead 2” which hit theaters on Friday.

In the original film, the question of God’s existence was debated in college philosophy class, while the sequel swiftly moves out of the classroom and into the courtroom, where Christianity can more ceremoniously be put on trial.

Melissa Joan Hart stars as Grace Wesley, a young history teacher in Arkansas who comforts one of her students following the death of her brother.

When the same student later asks Grace to compare the beliefs of Martin Luther King Jr. and Mahatma Gandhi to the teachings of Jesus Christ, the teacher comes under fire from the school board (and later the ACLU) for answering the student’s question openly in class. From this, Grace’s belief in God is put on trial in a civil lawsuit.

Hart is surprisingly compelling as Wesley, delivering the film’s most well-rounded performance. Even when she’s not the focus of the scene, all eyes remain on Hart as she effortlessly engages with audiences well-dispositioned to like her.

Her public defender lawyer who just happens to be non-Christian is competently portrayed by “Desperate Housewives” and “Dallas” actor Jesse Metcalfe, who gives a sincere effort but doesn’t have the acting chops to elevate the script beyond the words on the page.

Veteran character actor Ray Wise smirks and snarls his way through an over-the-top, almost laughable turn as ACLU lawyer Pete Kane. Wise plays Kane as if he were the caricature of an evil vaudevillian ne’er-do-well out to prove Christianity as hokum while twirling his comically ridiculous mustache in his fingers.

Ironically enough, the case is presided over by a judge played by “Ghostbusters” star Ernie Hudson, best known for the infamous line “Ray, when someone asks you if you’re a god, you say yes!” Though with as humorless a film as “God’s Not Dead 2,” it’s difficult to imagine the filmmakers have ever seen “Ghostbusters.”

While most of the acting is credible and entertaining,  Chuck Konzelman and Cary Solomon’s script completely misses the mark with  antagonistic straw-man arguments and a Swiss cheese plot littered with holes.

It’s in characters like Kane – and the performance from Wise – that secular critics feel more secure in negatively generalizing the entire film and simply writing it off as pure propaganda.

“God’s Not Dead 2” is more than that, but its director and screenwriters often shoot themselves in the foot with poor cinematic and plot choices. Visually, “God’s Not Dead 2” feels like a made-for-TV movie and plays up its overly bright cinematography at every turn.

Message isn’t the issue here. In fact, “God’s Not Dead 2” shows a surprisingly high diversity ratio when compared to other films in the faith-based genre and Hollywood in general.

The underlying message of “God’s Not Dead 2,” which seeks to reaffirm faith in Christian believers and preach the Gospel to others, comes through clearly.
But “God’s Not Dead 2” is fatally flawed by its writing, which taints the entire production and prevents the film from becoming a bigger success. Konzelman and Solomon’s script lacks true dramatic punch despite culturally relevant subject matter or any comedic quality to offset the seriousness of the film.

The film also struggles to be relatable for newcomers to the series, with a number of secondary characters filling out an otherwise thin primary story. While it’s not absolutely imperative that audiences see “God’s Not Dead” before catching the sequel, new viewers may find themselves totally lost in large sections of the second film in the franchise.

Make no mistake, filmmakers Pure Flix wholeheartedly intend to make “God’s Not Dead” a full fledged franchise. A poorly explained subplot involving Reverend Dave, one of several hold-over characters from the original film, takes center stage in the film’s post-credits scene, a first for the faith-based genre. After watching the extra footage, it’s impossible not to believe a third “God’s Not Dead” film is in the planning stages.

Hart’s performance and the film’s Christian message make “God’s Not Dead 2” a must-see for frequent movie-going believers and a probable pass for those not interested in the film’s overarching message.

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