This is a good little film telling a big story - but it might have worked better as a mini-series.
Directed by Daniel Lusko
Persecuted is not so much a religious message film as it is a political thriller with religious overtones. Although there will be those that will prematurely attack the film as being full of right-wing conservative Christian paranoia, the underlying message of standing up for what you know and believe to be right, despite all odds, is in fact universal and far-reaching.
Senator Donald Harrison, played by Bruce Davison (X-MEN, "Lost", "Castle"), is pushing legislation that would enact sweeping reform calling for religious leaders to provide 'equal time' for the beliefs of other faiths, effectively watering down the core pillars of their own. The stumbling block to his legislation is his friend, popular, influential televangelist John Luther, played by James Remar ( X-MEN: FIRST CLASS, "Dexter", DJANGO: UNCHAINED, WHAT LIES BENEATH, RED), who refuses to compromise his beliefs by endorsing the senator's campaign. Taking advantage of elements in Luther's admittedly sordid past, Senator Harrison unleashes a plan to set-up the popular preacher to make it look like he went back to his old ways. Harrison's thugs drug Luther and make it appear as if he murdered a young lady, also set-up by the political bad-guys. Luther escapes the scene but is a wanted man on the run. In a series of episodes reminiscent of The Fugitive, Luther eventually has a confrontation with his pursuers, the results of which I will not spoil for the potential viewer.
Persecuted is a well-paced action film with good production values and fine performances from most of the cast, although James R. Higgins, playing the non-specific president, comes off looking and sounding like a not very well-preserved Bill Clinton – either a distracting choice of direction or an unintentional impression on the actor's part – either way, it weakens the film and begs for criticism from those who will see it as an outright slam. James Remar as John Luther (if you're thinking the name'Luther' might be a bit too on-the-nose, I agree) plays the role with intensity and the right balance between confusion, fear, and faith. Bruce Davison is an appropriately smarmy politician but keeps it just under the surface, so as not to be an outright 'evil' villain. CCM notable Natalie Grant is very impressive in her small role as Luther's wife – understated and believable. I would like to have seen her role explored further than it was. Comedian Brad Stein, as Pastor Ryan Morris, also turns in an excellent performance playing a charismatic but ultimately shifty assistant and number two man to the televangelist – despite his textured performance I felt that the character's relationship to Luther is a weakness in the script. One wonders how Luther could work for years with such an obviously questionable right-hand man. Fred Thompson brings his usual gravitas in the role of Luther's father, a Catholic priest – a storyline that could have been explored for some interesting background since Luther was obviously a more non-denominational evangelical type.
Other cast members performed admirably in smaller roles, most notably Dean Stockwell (AIR FORCE ONE, THE MANCHURIAN CANDIDATE, STAR TREK), Raoul Trujillo ( APOCOLYPTO, COWBOYS AND ALIENS, THE NEW WORLD) and Fox News' Gretchen Carlson as a TV news anchor that looks remarkably like – well, Gretchen Carlson.
Despite the many good elements, the film sometimes feels more like an above-average dramatic mini series than a piece of dramatic cinema. The tense, pulsing score seems constant from the beginning instead of adding dynamic punctuation at key moments. The acting is good and might have benefited from having more scenes with less music or even none at all. I must admit that there were occasional bits of dialog that I couldn't understand and that certain elements leading up to the film's resolution could have been more clearly delineated. Over all, we have a good thriller here with excellent cinematography, crisp editing, good acting, and some minor flaws.
The basic themes of Persecuted are not implausible. Certainly, the idea of a framed TV evangelist on the run could be stretched out to a limited series with a fantastic pay-off. As it stands, Persecuted is a good little movie telling a big story. I would like to have seen it deal more with Luther's home-life and family relationships, which are only hinted at – maybe less thriller, more psychological drama. Either way, Persecuted is an interesting film asking a powerful question: how far will you go to defend your right to believe what you believe?