William Reynolds is good at killing. It’s his job, so he kinda has to be. But he’s ready to be done with his deadly vocation, serving the British East India Company as its go-to “fixer” when circumstances don’t work out in the influential trading firm’s favor.
William’s longtime boss, Charles Kemp, seems amenable to his chief assassin’s desire to retire to a quiet life in the British countryside. But then he promptly stages an explosion, tearing the dude’s carriage to bits. Charles’ favorite hit man simply knows too much to walk away.
But the crafty former assassin survives, unbeknownst to anyone, assuming the identity of the vicar who died while warning him of the attack. You could call it an 18th-century version of the witness protection program. And while hiding out in a small English parish, William begins to believe that perhaps a new life is indeed possible—even if it’s one he never would have chosen himself and one he’s actually rather ill-suited for, given his deep doubts about the Creator. It helps that he’s falling for a beautiful, devout young woman named Charlotte. And that she’s falling for him, too. But for a man with a past as violent as William Reynolds’, happily ever after never comes quietly.
The couple is on the threshold of marriage when Charles discovers William is still alive. The former hunter instantly becomes the hunted, with William fleeing to what he hopes might be a sanctuary of safety and anonymity across the Atlantic, in Philadelphia. But even from that great distance he’s determined to prove to Charlotte—who now knows his real identity—that he’s changed, that he’s so much more than a heartless murderer.
Can a bad man ever truly be good? That’s the core question in Beyond the Mask, an adventurous, pre-Revolutionary War adventure. The film’s answer is that while good intentions can bend a person’s moral trajectory a bit, ultimately God is the only one who can thoroughly redeem the tainted human heart. (More on that later.)
Providence soon aids William’s cause when both Charlotte and Charles voyage to the American colonies as well. And he quickly sets out to once and for all prove his worth and that he is genuinely weary of his bloody business.
As mentioned, a vicar gives his own life in exchange for saving William’s. And another man (Jeremiah) later also dies helping William escape from Charles’ murder-minded henchmen. William, for his part, not only fiercely defends himself against Charles’ continuing assault, but also stands up for those around him (within the context of the burgeoning New World revolution).
William eventually confesses to Charlotte that his heroics are largely an attempt to prove to her that he’s changed. Refusing to rush to judgment (or romance, for that matter), Charlotte gives William due credit when she can and does her best to encourage his new right-living momentum. But she also, rightly, questions some of his decisions along the way, especially when they relate to keeping certain bits of information secret when people’s lives were at stake. And she ultimately tells him that redemption cannot be earned, but only received as a gift from God. (More on that later as well.)
All of our heroes in this tale, including Benjamin Franklin himself, heroically combat Charles’ nefarious scheme to detonate bombs all across Philadelphia. And speaking of Mr. Franklin, he wisely tells William, “Every man must be tested before he can be trusted.” He refuses to be intimidated by British threats of violence, saying, “He that would give up a little liberty for security deserves neither and loses both.”
Charlotte is a woman of deep faith, discernment and conviction, and she prays repeatedly for God’s guidance and mercy for herself and others. Early in her acquaintance with William, she tells him, “Only God can give us new lives.” And that’s the essence of the theme that keeps turning up, one way or another, throughout the film.
Wondering about William’s spiritual character, Charlotte tells her mother, “Sometimes he speaks of God as a distant acquaintance, not a close friend.” Conversely, William tells Charlotte, “You embody God’s mercy for me. It’s mercy I’m beginning to appreciate, though I don’t deserve it.” On the run, William prays, “God, if you will help me redeem my name, I will lay aside revenge. Let me show Charlotte that I can change because of her.”
In America, William and Charlotte talk about both forgiveness and redemption. He asks, “Do you believe in redemption? Can a man who’s made his life a web of lies earn trust again?” Charlotte responds, “Well, that is a difficult question. … I believe in forgiveness. It helps if that man is willing to set aside his deception.” And she reaffirms the truth that “neither redemption or love can ever be earned. You have but to ask. They are gifts, gifts to be granted freely from the heart of God and from my heart to yours.”
A villain taunts William, saying, “Hell’s been waiting a long, long time for you, Will Reynolds.” And, about to be executed, William tells a pastor who visits him, “Reverend, I had a deal with God. But it turns out the name William Reynolds was too evil even for Him to redeem. I’ll be getting what I deserve tomorrow.” The pastor counters with, “Actually, someone else already got what you deserve.” William then has a genuine conversion experience, telling Charlotte, “Jeremiah gave his life for me. That’s what Christ did for me. I have strived in vain to redeem my name. But God, in His mercy, He has done the work I could never do. He’s redeemed my name and given me His.”
Twice William and Charlotte tenderly kiss.
William and another assassin use poison darts to kill two British soldiers, then board their boat and dispatch several more. William’s confrontations with Charles and his men involve intense fistfights, blood-producing swordfights, brutal head poundings and whizzing bullets (some of which find their marks). Ultimately, mortal wounds are inflicted. And William is troubled by flashbacks to violence in India earlier in his life, where we see warlike scenes in which more people are killed.
A huge electricity-generating contraption badly shocks William and electrocutes another man. A huge explosion destroys the villain’s HQ. Charles orders his men to kill Charlotte.
“Oh Lord!” and “Good heavens!” are thrown out as exclamations.
Beyond the various Left Behind flicks, Christian moviemakers rarely venture into the spiritually uncharted territory of action/adventure. But Beyond the Mask fearlessly climbs up on the same stage as National Treasure and Zorro with a story that’s two parts historical fiction, one part romance and one part Sunday school flannelgraph lesson.
The first part propels quite a lot of conflict and violence our way. We see shootings and shockings and beatings amid a rollicking yarn that spans continents and genres.
The last part proffers explicitly Christ-centered themes, particularly in the area of spiritual redemption. We watch as a man who’s made bad (murderous) choices in his life is suddenly motivated by love to utterly change. In most movies, that would be a great life lesson, sufficient in and of itself to inspire moviegoers and make them cheer the newfound goodness of the bad guy. Beyond the Mask goes beyond that stock story idea, though, leading us through the (theological) logic of how God must be a part of our change for it to really stick. Indeed, William’s extreme soul makeover falls short … until he realizes that the redemption he longs for isn’t something he can grasp through his own efforts, only something that can be received from the Almighty.
Screenwriter Paul McCusker (full disclosure: Paul has been a driving creative force in Focus on the Family’s Adventures in Odyssey series since the late 1980s) told Plugged In, “I hope Beyond the Mask can be a story that triggers thoughts about forgiveness in its audiences, prompting questions about it. And then maybe to come to similar conclusions. Because apart from faith in Christ, you can’t earn redemption. [But] I’ve been doing drama a long time, and I’m finding, more often than not, what we have to do is come up with an excuse to talk about the faith within a story. In other words, you’re setting the stage that has all the components of good storytelling—which would be plot, characterization, all of those things. But it’s kind of like C.S. Lewis said about the Narnia stories: ‘If people get the faith aspect, that’s great. And if they don’t, at least hopefully they’ve heard a good story.’ And I think that’s probably the better way to do things.”
After serving as an associate editor at NavPress’ Discipleship Journal and consulting editor for Current Thoughts and Trends, Adam now oversees the editing and publishing of Plugged In’s reviews as the site’s director. He and his wife, Jennifer, have three children. In their free time, the Holzes enjoy playing games, a variety of musical instruments, swimming and … watching movies.