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Persecuted: Blu-ray + DVD Review

Persecuted (2014) movie poster Persecuted

Theatrical Release: July 18, 2014 / Running Time: 91 Minutes / Rating: PG-13

Writer/Director: Daniel Lusko

Cast: James Remar (John Luther), Bruce Davison (Senator Donald Harrison), Fred Dalton Thompson (Father Charles Luther), Dean Stockwell (Dave Wilson), Gretchen Carlson (Diana Lucas), Brad Stine (Ryan Morris), James R. Higgins (The President), Raoul Trujillo (Mr. Gray), Mark Siversten (Mr. Broad), Natalie Grant (Monica Luther), Sage Elise Bell (Jodi Luther), Matt Page (Father William), Ashley Lewis (Aaliyah/Mellita Evans), Debrianna Mansini (Agent Rivera), David House (Agent Clark), Lauren Poole (Hotel Attendant), Cydne Schulte (Gaunt White Clerk), Tabitha Shaun (Alex O'Conner)

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Christian filmmakers are getting more bold and ambitious. Once dabbling strictly in heartwarming dramas and Bible adaptations, they have graduated to comedy, musical films,
and even thrillers that aren't Rapture-related. Persecuted falls into the lattermost category and might be easily described as a Christian version of The Fugitive or Enemy of the State.

John Luther (James Remar) is an influential evangelist and the CEO of a Washington, D.C.-based Christian ministry called Truth. In the televised interview that opens the film, he identifies himself as a recovered abusive alcoholic gambling drug addict. He points out that he is neither a Republican nor a Democrat and does not belong to any specific religious denomination. You could call him a maverick. Backstage, John is contacted by the Senate Majority Leader (Bruce Davison), who tries to persuade him to back the Faith and Fairness Act that is about to be voted on. John won't do it. He refuses to water down the Gospels in the interests of appealing to the public.

In "Persecuted", fugitive evangelist John Luther (James Remar) crashes the darkened room where the board he used to chair meets and has quarterly figures projected onto his body.

With that unwillingness to lend his support, John's convictions make him a target for his unscrupulous colleagues. The next thing you know, a man with a corded ear piece and a quiet, gum-chewing teenage girl move to action. The trap they set for the steadfast believer begins with a photo and proceeds with an off-road diversion. John is drugged, photographed in compromising positions, and then framed for the rape and murder of that girl, a recently-adopted 16-year-old orphan.

John narrowly escapes the scene of the crime, sparking an FBI manhunt. As he tries to make sense of the situation he finds himself in, the Senator distances himself and moves forward with his bill, while swiftly appointing the vain emcee (Brad Stine) as Truth's new CEO, a pawn to do the Senator's bidding. Meanwhile, incognito to avoid arrest, John tries to figure out the truth and expose those who must have diabolically set out to ruin his life with this staged scandal. At this time of desperation, he reads his Bible, puts his trust in God, and visits with his father (Fred Dalton Thompson), who is somehow a Catholic priest.

Persecuted feels like the work of someone with a ludicrous explanation for a damaging personal scandal. In fact, this paranoid political thriller is the brainchild of Daniel Lusko, a young man seasoned in documentaries who made his narrative feature directorial debut on last year's direct-to-video hurricane thriller 500 MPH Storm. As a producer and the sole writer-director, he seems more fully invested in Persecuted, a vessel for him to air his thoughts and fears on modern living. It isn't much of a stretch to see John Luther as the filmmaker's voice, a man cast out by society over a crime he didn't commit because he won't cater to the masses and wants all American schools to teach the Gospel.

Senator Donald Harrison (Bruce Davison) puts on a happy face, knowing his Faith and Fairness Act is sure to pass with opponent John Luther disgraced. Fred Dalton Thompson plays Father Charles Luther, a Catholic priest John just calls "Dad."

Lusko's views are surely shared by a portion of the population, but it's not a portion that overlaps much with the mass media or the entertainment industry. That is certainly a factor in the film's reception, which saw it score a 0% on Rotten Tomatoes from the few critics who bothered to review it.
While it must not have been screened for critics, that scarcity of coverage is fairly surprising for a movie that opened in 736 theaters, a count that narrowly qualifies the film as a wide release by industry standards. The press' demolition of the film was unsurprising aside from perhaps the severity of the disdain; Persecuted's average critic rating of 2.5/10 is matched or exceeded by Gigli, Ballistic: Ecks vs. Sever, and almost any poorly-reviewed film you can think of.

Perhaps if you're judging the movie primarily as a vehicle for an agenda with which you strongly disagree, it's fair to assign Persecuted a rock bottom score. However, I think it's not only fair but appropriate to critique it purely as a film without taking into account its politics. Unfortunately, Persecuted doesn't fare much better on that basis, although it is more competent than those historically low marks would indicate.

As a mystery thriller, the film is flawed. There are glaring plot holes. It seems unlikely that even the most skillful miscreants could so successfully frame John Luther for murder. Rape is an even further-fetched charge, though one this PG-13 movie doesn't even attempt to explain. Just as unlikely is the fact that Luther could somehow elude the FBI, while regularly popping in to visit his father and his former co-worker. It's not as if the movie is completely oblivious as to a fugitive's dilemma; he can't get a hotel room with cash and apparently has to sleep in his car. But the movie demands more suspension of disbelief than any intelligent person can give it. One suspects you'll need more than a gun, a rosary, and the ability to quote Scripture when avoiding authorities on rape-homicide charges.

Maybe Lusko doesn't care being taken to task on that. His movie certainly seems less interested in gripping viewers than in calling attention to the persecution of Christians (something the film fairly points out that no one takes seriously) and to speak against the pro-diversity agenda that sees people of all faiths walking hand in hand. Perhaps something is lost in translation to populist fiction, but Lusko comes across as a paranoid and somewhat intolerant individual. His skepticism in government officials (including a president who speaks like Bill Clinton, with just a little Jimmy Carter folksiness thrown in) is perhaps dutiful in some way. His commentary on businesspeople, who can't help but talk about earnings and demographics even in the immediate wake of their leader's fall from grace, is heavy-handed but not entirely without merit. His staging of a crime conspiracy mystery is largely unsatisfying, lacking in suspense and believability. His characters are nothing short of outrageous, from the all-knowing cigar-smoking father (in both senses) to the tattoo parlor stoner girl who improbably documents Luther being set up and merely chooses to sell the memory stick to him. This is a world where a major evangelical organization conducts business in dark rooms lit only by a few banker's lamps.

In desperation and on the run, John Luther (James Remar) puts his faith in God, but visits a tattoo parlor to gather evidence.

Persecuted boasts higher production values than you might suspect. Lusko shows off his New York Film Academy education with multiple fancy upside-down camera angle and time-lapse, motion-control shots of D.C. monuments. Neither element really convinces you that he's earned such creative control that eludes most men his age and almost all women of any age.

The cast offers an apparent who's who of Hollywood Christian conservatives who aren't outspoken or versed in this film scene. Remar is a kind of undervalued veteran, who has nonetheless contributed to such secular modern achievements as Django Unchained, "Dexter", Ratatouille, Transformers: Dark of the Moon, and X-Men: First Class. It's a little unfortunate that he gets his shot at leading man in something as trashed and ridiculed as this. Then again, he's got to relish a role that probably sought like a white Denzel Washington, less expensive Liam Neeson, or non-Scientologist Tom Cruise type. No one else, from Bryan Singer veteran Davison to Dean Stockwell, gets to do much acting, even if they enjoy higher billing than usual.

After striking out with critics, Persecuted bombed with moviegoers, opening in just 19th place with $850 thousand (the 64th worst wide opening weekend on record) and quickly shedding its theaters on its way to a disappointing $1.6 M domestic gross. Apparently not even bothering with theatrical release in the rest of the world, Persecuted gets another chance to find an audience at home with Tuesday's DVD and Blu-ray + DVD releases.

Persecuted Blu-ray + DVD combo pack cover art -- click to buy from Amazon.com Blu-ray & DVD Details

2.40:1 Widescreen (DVD Anamorphic)
Blu-ray: 5.1 Dolby TrueHD (English), Dolby Stereo 2.0 (English)
DVD: Dolby Digital 5.1 (English), Dolby Stereo 2.0 (English)
Subtitles: English for Hearing Impaired, Spanish
Not Closed Captioned; Extras Not Subtitled
Release Date: October 14, 2014
Two single-sided, dual-layered discs (BD-25 & DVD-5)
Suggested Retail Price: $24.99
Blue Keepcase
Also available on DVD ($19.99 SRP) and Amazon Instant Video

VIDEO and AUDIO

Based on the case's "16x9 widescreen" listing, I feared that Persecuted might join the number of titles that Millennium Entertainment has treated to cropped, compromised presentations on home video. Gladly, that proves not to be the case. On both formats, the film appears in its original 2.40:1 theatrical aspect ratio. The Blu-ray's picture quality is pretty good, with the showy visuals not posing any major problems if not wielding the detail of bigger budget, bigger studio productions. The Dolby TrueHD 5.1 soundtrack is also of agreeable quality without really striking you in any meaningful way.

James R. Higgins, who plays a Clintonesque American President, has some thoughts about "Persecuted" in the DVD's untitled making-of featurette. Former Presidential candidate Fred Dalton Thompson tells the story of how he came to be baptized at age 12 in this Daystar Network interview.

BONUS FEATURES, MENUS, PACKAGING and DESIGN

Well, this is a first. The combo pack's front cover art advertises exclusive bonus content, which the back cover corroborates.
Strangely, though, the features promised are nowhere to be found on the Blu-ray, which only adds Persecuted's 1.78:1 theatrical trailer (2:05, SD) to the Previews submenu also holding the standard definition ads with which that disc loads, for Ragamuffin, Life of a King, and Home Run.

For the audio commentary, making-of featurette, and interview promised in the packaging, you'll have to consult the second disc of the set: the DVD. Yes, all the bonus features apart from the trailer are DVD exclusives for some curious reason. I might suspect this was done to keep the Blu-ray to a single layer as Millennium prefers, but the BD-25 disc isn't even filled close to capacity.

The DVD extras begin with an audio commentary by writer-director Daniel Lusko, cinematographer Richard Vialet, editor Brian Brinkman, and composer Chris Ridenhour. For not being terribly experienced, they give us a track that is surprisingly mundane and lacking enthusiasm. There is a lot of technical talk, some observations from viewing (like unplanned but fitting insect involvement), stories from production, and notes that audiences have given them. Probably the most interesting thing are their film influences, which are almost all R-rated Hollywood films and include Road to Perdition, Shutter Island, and Drive (hey, at least they have good taste!). You may groan when they liken their work to Hitchcock and Jurassic Park.

Next, we get a short making-of featurette (6:40), in which Lusko and several actors describe the story and the characters, as if you haven't just watched the movie. The piece is seasoned with quotes from former presidents and leaders.

An oddly edited promotional Daystar Network interview (6:22) lets Lusko and Fred Dalton Thompson talk about the movie's ideas and their faith. Expect to do some more groaning.

Finally, the DVD offers the same four trailers as the Blu-ray in the same fashion and resolution.

Both discs' main menu plays a scored montage of clips within an empty space in the rearranged rendering of the cover art that's mildly updated from the theatrical one-sheet. The DVD's submenus are silent and static. As usual for the studio, the Blu-ray doesn't support bookmarks, but does resume unfinished playback.

No inserts or slipcover accompany the similarly-labeled discs and the standard blue keepcase they share.

Think you had a bad day? John Luther (James Remar) has been drugged and framed for rape and murder. At least Christian charity Helping Hands lets him use a cell phone while on the run from the law.

CLOSING THOUGHTS

Though not as atrocious as its box office record and theatrical reviews indicate, Persecuted is definitely not good enough to recommend. This Christian conspiracy thriller has plenty to say about modern politics and religious freedom; unfortunately, a lot of it strikes you as paranoid, narrow-minded, and insane, not the foundation you want from your entertainment.

Millennium thankfully allows a 2.40:1 movie to come to disc without being cropped, but it does strangely drop the ball by giving the Blu-ray no real bonus features while the DVD has some prominently-advertised ones.

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James Remar: Gun White Fang Walker, Texas Ranger: The Sixth Season Ratatouille Transformers: Dark of the Moon
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Reviewed October 13, 2014.



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