In the lead-up to the movie adaptation of “Killing Jesus,” Bill O’Reilly delivered his usual canned cant about how, as he told “Entertainment Tonight” this week, “not one day has the media been fair to me.”
O’Reilly, who co-wrote the book on which the new three-hour National Geographic movie is based, appears to be trying to manipulate TV critics. If you don’t like “Killing Jesus,” he seems to be saying, it will be because you don’t like me, because you’re a member of the liberal mainstream media, because you want to discredit Fox News.
I admit I don’t like watching and listening to O’Reilly; I prefer my blowhards in a comic context, on Comedy Central or “Saturday Night Live.” But that has nothing to do with what I don’t like about this distended, vaguely imagined movie, which premieres Sunday at 8 p.m. “Killing Jesus” is a shallow telling of the Jesus story, with no more distinction than you might find in the generic reenactments of some historical documentary. It features name actors, including Kelsey Grammer and Rufus Sewell, and it was executive produced by Ridley Scott among others, but it is far less than the sum of its parts.
The script, by Walon Green, opens with some terribly overbaked material, as Grammer plays King Herod addled by a nightmare vision. Stuffed into a bushy wig, Grammer gives a fondue performance, in that it’s coated with cheese and a small bit of it goes an awfully long way. His death scene is particularly cheesy, and hammy, too, as he collapses with the kind of writhing to-do you might find in a bad amateur theater production. Once he’s out of the picture early on, after ordering the murder of male children, the movie calms down some and moves through its familiar paces, with the ascent of Jesus (Haaz Sleiman), his linkup with John the Baptist (Abhin Galeya), and the political cogitations and agitations triggered by his popularity.
The movie focuses a bit on those political issues among the High Priest Caiaphas (Sewell), Pontius Pilate (Stephen Moyer from “True Blood”), and Antipas (Eoin Macken) — but not enough to make them build dramatically. The specifics of the agendas of these men — beyond simply getting rid of Jesus — get lost as the narrative skips from big confrontation to big confrontation. Meanwhile, we see Jesus running through his greatest hits, not casting the first stone, railing against money changers in the temple, etc.
As played by Sleiman, Jesus is something of a cipher, without much charisma or divinity. He’s just another man in “Killing Jesus” with a bad wig, eating from plateware that looks just a little too Pottery Barn for the first century. The movie doesn’t work to give us a sense of who he might have been and why so many were drawn to him; it just assumes we already know the answers. But those are the kind of interesting depths and imaginings a movie about this amazing story can and should bring. They are what transform an ordinary National Geographic canvas into something closer to a vision.
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