When the rapture occurred, traveling salesman and former government assassin Josh McManus was one of those unfortunate sinners left behind. His saintly wife and daughter, on the other hand, were not. Determined now to serve God so that he can one day see his family again in Heaven, Josh travels the cruel new world protecting the newly repentant from the likes of the warhammer wielding Hawg and his motorcycle gang, The Barbarians. After two years as a wandering Christian warrior, Josh’s reputation as the unstoppable Black Rider now precedes him. So, it’s no surprise that when he shows up in a small town seeking medical aid for a wounded girl, the local mayor only agrees to help if Josh will undertake a dangerous mission for him. It seems that the ominous organization known as the ULC desires a man known only as the Shepherd be brought to them and has ordered the mayor to do so. Until now, however, no one has been able to locate the mysterious figure. For the sake of the injured girl, Josh sets out with the mayor’s bible-curious daughter, Sofia, to find the Shepherd and bring him in. The problem is that to get to the Shepherd, Josh and Sofia must confront the hordes of godless heathens who now populate the American wasteland, as well as survive the notorious battle pit of the imperious Honcho. With time, and possibly his faith, running out, Josh must bring all his deadly skills to bear, but will even they be enough to thwart the forces of evil intent on taking over the world?
I know, I know, I’ve been pretty hard on faith-based films in the past, but that’s only because, well, most of them haven’t been very good. And yet, if you’ve been keeping up with my stuff at Aleteia, such as my recent review of Do You Believe?, you’ve probably noticed I’ve started to lighten up on them quite a bit. That’s for a couple of reasons. One is that, thankfully, the people who make faith-based films are finally starting to show some technical competence. Believe me, these types of things used to be a lot harder to sit through back when they displayed the same production values as your average Vine video. The other reason, though, is that I’ve taken a page from Roger Ebert and started approaching faith-based films the same way he did Infra Man.
What’s that you say, you’ve never heard of the movie Infra-Man? Don’t worry if it’s slipped your mind, I assure you, most everybody else has forgotten it by now as well. Even those who were around in 1978 when Infra-Man first opened in theaters were probably too busy going to see Star Wars for the gazillionth time to even notice it was playing next door. In a nutshell, Infra-Man was a Hong Kong produced B-movie full of dodgy wire-fu, rubber monster suits that looked like they were borrowed from a theme park, and hilariously histrionic bad dialog. Basically, it was the Power Rangers long before there was ever such a thing as the Power Rangers.
If by some odd chance you do recall the film, it's probably due to Roger Ebert's ecstatic reaction to it. "I'm a pushover for monster movies anyway," America's premier critic wrote in his gushing review of one the 70’s dumbest movies, "but Infra-Man has it all." And it wasn’t just a fleeting moment of temporary insanity. Looking back on Infra-Man decades later, Ebert reiterated his love for the undeniably silly thing, exclaiming "I'll bet a month hasn't gone by since that I haven't thought of that film." Now, it's not like Ebert considered Infra-Man to be on the same level as Citizen Kane or anything. He was well aware the film was no masterpiece, or even very good for that matter. It's just that he also understood that Infra-Man was made for a very particular type of viewer, and being a self-proclaimed member of that demographic himself, Ebert knew the movie admirably delivered just what its intended audience wanted.
Which brings us, in a roundabout way, to the post-apocalyptic faith-based film, Revelation Road 3: The Black Rider, the latest installment in the ongoing Revelation Road movie series released by Pure Flix Entertainment. You might recall Pure Flix, they’re the same folks who not only gave us the aforementioned Do You Believe?, but also films like last year's surprise hit, God's Not Dead, as well as the recent Christian mommy-blogger opus, Mom’s Night Out. And just like those films, Revelation Road 3: The Black Rider is almost guaranteed to draw the ire of mainstream audiences and critics, not solely because it’s a Christian film, but because by most artistic measures, it’s pretty average fare. Of course, in a year that's already seen the release of dreck like Fifty Shades of Grey and Unfinished Business, average isn't really an insult, but you get the point.
The thing is, much like Roger Ebert’s beloved Infra-Man, Revelation Road 3: The Black Rider is also a movie with a very specific audience in mind. And that target audience might just find Revelation Road 3: The Black Rider to be, as Roger Ebert once did with Infra-Man, a movie that has all that they are looking for. It speaks their particular dialect of modern protestant Christianese, it directly addresses their premillennialist concerns about the rapture, and it doesn't venture too far outside their comfort zone as far as subject matter goes. In short, it’s a movie made by evangelicals to entertain and uplift other evangelicals, and in that respect, it has to be said that Revelation Road 3: The Black Rider is an absolute success. Yes, compared to a deeply spiritual film like Calvary, it’s dreck. But it’s dreck that does exactly what it’s supposed to do.
Besides, Revelation Road 3: The Black Rider has something else going for it that makes its artistic lackings doubly forgivable. You see, not only does it successfully cater to faith-based film fans, but it also just happens to be aimed squarely at folks who grew up watching a lot of low budget rip offs of Mad Max 2: The Road Warrior. And by low budget, I mean the entire cost to produce Revelation Road 3: The Black Rider was probably about the same as what they spent on hair gel for The Road Warrior. And yet, the movie still manages to squeeze in a lot of the tropes associated with the genre.
Don’t believe me? Well, let’s take a look at some of the conventions associated with Mad Max noted over at tvtropes.org. Without even trying very hard, I found at least twenty of them in Revelation Road 3: The Black Rider …
- After the End – Well, duh, it’s post-rapture.
- All Bikers Are Hells Angels – Hawg and the Barbarians from the first two movies more than satisfy this requirement.
- The Apunkalypse/Post-Apunkalyptic Armor – There’s not a whole lot of leather and spikes on display (too sexual?), but plenty of fur to go around.
- Badass Driver – Josh’s car plays a big part in this installment.
- Barbarian Longhair – A lot of Honcho’s subjects could use a haircut.
- Early Installment Weirdness – In the first movie, rather than float up into the sky to meet Jesus, the raptured are instead transformed into glowing orbs which shoot up into Heaven.
- Fallen Hero – Well, if Josh weren’t fallen, he’d have been turned into a glowing orb himself, right?
- Heartbroken Badass – And since Josh wasn’t orbified with the rest of his family, he’s pretty sad.
- Heroic Sacrifice – This is a Christian series, so naturally there’s a few of these along the way.
- Iconic Outfit – By the latest installment, Josh has gotten himself a pretty nifty black ensemble.
- Ineffectual Loner – Josh just can’t stop getting involved.
- Made of Iron – Some of the bad guys in these movies take an inhuman amount of beatings without flinching.
- Malevolent Masked Men – Along with their hair-metal hairdos, some of Honcho’s fighters like to wear masks as well. Again, nothing like the gimp-style fashions to be found in Mad Max, but masks just the same.
- New Old West – Everything about the mayor and his little town screams western. The only thing missing is a saloon, but you know how it is with Baptists and liquor.
- Only Known by Their Nickname – Hawg, Honcho, The Black Rider, nuff said.
- Scavenger World – The world hasn’t quite reached the depths of The Walking Dead just yet, but resources are definitely scarce.
- Tranquil Fury – Josh always tries to talk his way out of situations first. Then he pummels everybody.
- Walk the Earth – Pretty self explanatory.
- Wasteland Elder – Both the mayor and the Prophet could fill this spot.
- Wounded Gazelle Gambit – Well, that would be spoiling things, wouldn’t it?
Sadly there’s no Post-Apocalyptic Dog to be found, but I think I’ve proved my point. There’s plenty enough tropes to place Revelation Road 3: The Black Rider squarely in the Mad Max knock-off category. Now, obviously, this being an evangelical production, everything is a little tamer than in other Mad Max inspired films. Everybody is a little too clean looking, there’s certainly no gore or nudity or profanity, and, of course, there’s a lot more sermonizing than you’re likely to find in other post-apocalyptic flicks.
Given the scenario, though, the preaching is a little more organic to the story than it normally is in other faith-based films. I mean, in the world of Revelation Road it’s pretty obvious that the rapture has occurred, so it’s natural that folks would talk about it. From a Catholic standpoint, of course, the whole premillenial rapture scenario is a bit shaky. As I noted way back in my review of Phase IV, about all the Bible really says about the end times is that there will be wars and rumors of wars, some natural disasters, and that the Church will be persecuted, undergoing a trial that will shake the faith of many believers. If you think about it, that’s pretty much been the story of the Church since it began. It’s as Jesus proclaimed in Mark 1:15, "THIS is the time of fulfillment. The kingdom of God is at hand. Repent, and believe in the gospel." That’s why the Church teaches that we’ve been living in the end times ever since Jesus ascended into Heaven almost 2,000+ years ago, and it could remain the end times for who knows how much longer. The rapture, if you want to call it that, won’t come until the very end when it’s time to put a kibosh on Satan once and for all.
But what does it really matter when this rapture occurs? Well, as Fr. John Echert writes over at EWTN, “one of the sad side-effects of a ‘rapture’ view held by many is that it fails to recognize the present reality of the Kingdom of God as it is even now.” As the old Catholic Encyclopedia explains, “As men grew to understand the Divinity of Christ they grew to see that the kingdom of God was also that of Christ… So, too, as men realized that this kingdom stood for a certain tone of mind… The kingdom of God means, then, the ruling of God in our hearts; it means those principles which separate us off from the kingdom of the world and the devil; it means the benign sway of grace.” As always, there’s a lot more too it, but the main idea is simple. The kingdom of God is not something to come later after some post-rapture thousand years of suffering, it’s here now, in us, and we should be living in a way that demonstrates that present reality to the rest of the world.
Still, even though I’ve got a theological disagreement with the film’s main conceit, I have to admit that the Revelation Road series remains something of a guilty pleasure for this one-time evangelical turned good ol’ Catholic boy. The saving grace of Christ’s message remains true no matter what view of the rapture the movie holds, and the Mad Max inspired goofiness on display is just too irresistible to my B-movie tastes. So I say fire up Netflix and give the Revelation Road movies a try. Just remember to judge them for what they are rather than what they’re not. If Ebert could do it with something like Infra Man, then certainly we can do it with these films.
Like a lot of Pure Flix productions, the Revelation Road series has appearances by some faces familiar to the discerning B-movie fan. James Denton, Bruce Marchiano, Sting (the wrestler), Eric Roberts, Brian Bosworth, Kevin Sorbo, they all show up at various points throughout the films. The unstoppable main character of the movies, however, is played by none other than the co-founder of Pure Flix himself, David A.R. White. It’s good to be the king, I guess.