CAPSULE: ASSASSIN 33 A.D. (2020)

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Beware

DIRECTED BY: Jim Carroll

FEATURING: Morgan Roberts, Ilsa Levine, Geraldo Davila, Donny Boaz, Lamar Usher, Jason Castro

PLOT: Muslim extremists use a time machine to go back to 33 A.D. to try to assassinate Jesus; with the encouragement of his Christian girlfriend, an agnostic genius tries to fix the time stream.

Still from Assassin 33 A.D. (2020)

COMMENTS: I wouldn’t say it’s impossible to make a good Christian time travel movie; would have nailed it. But I am pretty sure it is impossible to make a good Christian time travel movie that involves terrorist strike teams with assault weapons going back to 1st century Judea to assassinate Jesus. Assassin 33 AD is Donnie Darko meets The Passion of the Christ done on the kind of budget usually reserved for an episode of “The 700 Club.”

Assassin33ad.com boasts that the script has “won more International Screenplay Awards than any know [sic] script in history.” Starting straight off with the line “I’m just struggling. I went from saving an embassy and killing terrorists to being head of security at a research lab,” delivered casually by a rugged man to his wife on a Sunday drive, you can see why. That’s the kind of expository introductory dialogue slick Hollywood movies are too afraid to put in for fear it might sound “clumsy.”

The wife who needs filling in on what her husband has been doing with his life is Heidi Montag, a former Playboy model and current aspiring Christian pop singer who, like much of the cast and crew, was drawn from a cable TV show called “Marriage Boot Camp Reality Stars.” In another fine bit of screenwriting, Montag’s husband chuckles fondly, “That British accent!” This is necessary foreshadowing, because the accent will turn up as an important plot point late on, and without that bit of dialogue we’d have no way of knowing  that she spoke with a British accent. Assassin33ad.com reveals that a producer warned the director when he was planning to cast Montag that “Reality stars can’t act.”

Maybe all the praise for the screenplay comes from its nimble handling of the multiple timelines that infest the second half of the movie. I can’t opine on that, because I quickly lost track of how many time-clones there were running around, and which one were alive and which ones were dead, after the second or third time the hero (Ram Goldstein!) and/or villains leapt  backwards or forwards in time like chronological yo-yos. Personally, it seemed to me that they made up the rules of time travel on the fly:  somehow, even though he just invented time travel accidentally twenty four hours ago, Ram knows that there’s a lag between changing the past and overwriting the present that could take “minutes, possibly hours, maybe longer,” thus short-wiring the possibility of typical time travel paradoxes. Oh yeah, and under certain conditions, people sent back in time can spontaneously explode, which helps Ram out of a jam a couple times.

The screenplay might have earned its record plaudits due to the way it handles other paradoxes—like, what is the point in traveling back in time to kill someone whose fame comes entirely from his martyrdom? I infer the answer is that it’s more important to bad guy Ahmed’s main plan to kill the witnesses to the resurrection. But, since he believes that the story of Jesus returning from the dead is all made up in the first place, this seems like a strange solution. Wouldn’t those who saw the messiah gunned down by a time-traveling hit squad make up a similar cover story about him coming back to life after that assassination? Especially since the earliest surviving mentions of Jesus’ resurrection don’t arrive until a couple of decades after his death, anyway. If you wanted to stop the spread of Christianity, if might make more sense to eliminate Paul. But who am I to speculate, I’m not an Arab mastermind.

My head was spinning trying to figure out Ahmed’s scheme, but apparently the plan is sound, because in one possible future spawned by all the mucking about in the space-time continuum, our present time is (as Ahmed puts it) “a world without filthy Christian scum!” It’s a world “without forgiveness,” but it does have piles of rubble foregrounding massive green-screen skyscrapers, and constant ominous lightning strikes.

The screenplay touches on other big philosophical issues, like the Problem of Evil: i.e. how could a loving God allow things like brain cancer, child starvation, car crashes, and Assassination 33 A.D. to exist? Unfortunately, the script kind of forgets about this whole plot point after raising it, leaving it as a loose end. If the story does address the quandary, it’s by implication only: something along the lines of, “Sure, people blame God every time he kills off a family in a senseless accident, but they never consider that they should be grateful to Him for all the times He used time travel to avert tragedies in alternate timelines.”

I’m also not sure the comic relief completely worked. Casting Simon, the only black character, as the movie’s clown is a gamble; but making him a brilliant scientist who talks more like Chris Tucker than Neil deGrasse Tyson seems off. Also, having your big comedy number be a parody of the Garden of Gethsemane, with Simon giving the blue-eyed, English-speaking Jesus spoilers about his upcoming crucifixion, is equally questionable—although I will confess I giggled legitimately when he explains to the messiah, “I’m from the future. And I’ve seen your movie. I got it on bootleg. Forgive me Lord, I’m sorry.”

Assassin 33 A.D. faces an essential problem: it wants to be a faith-based movie and a thrilling action sci-fi spectacular a la The Terminator at the same time. But those two genres have incompatible messages. Inspirational films require introspective characters who struggle with moral dilemmas and slowly come to a spiritual awakening. Action films require blood squibs and a high body count. Now, when your film is about Jesus Christ, who—little known fact—rejected the use of violence to resolve interpersonal conflicts, there may be a problem satisfying both arcs. Which storyline will win the race for narrative relevance: Ram’s gradual acceptance of God’s difficult commandment of forgiveness, or burning desire to make the swarthy guy with a foreign accent pay for his abominable sins with a letter opener in the spine? I think you can guess which one this screenplay favors at the climax. The script’s way out of this pacifist paradox is to proclaim that it’s OK to kill bad guys as long as your cathartic revenge killing occurs in a tangent universe.

If you’re getting the idea that the super-ambitious  Assassin 33 A.D. grows dumber and dumber the more you think about it, then you’re on the right track. It is unintentionally funny, except for one offensive feature: its brazen Islamophobia. All of the Muslim characters here are villainous caricatures; the script forgot to throw in even one decent man of conscience to cover its bases. Ahmed appears, at first, to be an upstanding member of the community and a loyal American, a grateful refugee, but it’s all a cover story; he’s an untrustworthy mole working for foreign extremists. The movie progressively assembles a multicultural team of good guy scientists: a handsome agnostic WASP with a Jewish surname, a black dude, a Mexican who speaks with an accent, even a chick. The movie invites Americans from every race and ethnicity to team up against the Muslims. Jesus commanded believers to “Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you,” but that’s why he wouldn’t have lasted a day as a Hollywood screenwriter. In a movie, you’ve got to have somebody the heroes can pump bullets into without anyone feeling guilty about it. Here, the Muslim characters are all legitimate targets, outside of God’s good graces, not eligible for forgiveness. They are not, in this movie’s view, people. They are the Other, the Enemy. And although I suspect the writer/director cast them that way more out of thoughtless prejudice than evil propagandistic intent, that dehumanization is the outstanding immoral element of this feature that I can’t forgive. Maybe Jesus will.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“It’s nuts…  just bad writing and middling acting to go with its decent production values, heaping helpings of Islamophobia and obscene levels of violence.”–Roger Moore, Movie Nation (contemporaneous)

4 thoughts on “CAPSULE: ASSASSIN 33 A.D. (2020)”

  1. This sounds like an unironic live-action adaptation of an unpublished Jack Chick strip. Which was probably inevitable, given the 2010s’ weird wave of right-wing Christian films that everybody makes fun of but which are inexplicably successful.

  2. In other words, ‘Jim Carroll’ is a better singer than writer/director…
    Looking through that list of festivals for the ‘award winning script’, I notice that they wisely avoided the A-listers and went straight for the D- and G-list fests.

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