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Duvall does it all, is sure to enthrall in `Apostle'

Though he's unquestionably one of America's best character actors, Robert Duvall hasn't always been selective about his acting projects (most notable among his missteps have been "Days of Thunder" and "The Scarlet Letter").

As a director, though, his taste is impeccable. He made his filmmaking debut with the documentary "We're Not the Jet Set" in 1977 and followed it up with the drama "Angelo, My Love" in 1983. Unfortunately, he hasn't directed anything for more than a dozen years.But the wait was worth it, and the result is a labor of love, "The Apostle." Duvall wrote, directed, executive produced and stars in this superb drama about a Pentecostal preacher from Texas with some all-too-human weaknesses.

For Euliss "Sonny" Dewey (Duvall), temptation is drinking and women. In spite of his foibles, he still claims to love his wife, Jessie (Farrah Fawcett), and their children. But Jessie has found comfort with a younger minister, Horace (Todd Allen), and in a drunken rage Sonny pummels the man.

Suddenly cut off from his family and church and on the run from the police, Sonny heads to a tiny Louisiana bayou town, where he hopes to start a new church. And with the help of a retired preacher, the Rev. Blackwell (John Beasley), he actually gets the project under way.

Now going under the name The Apostle E.F., Sonny also finds romance with Toosie (Miranda Richardson), a secretary who is also separated from her family.

Sonny's problems eventually catch up with him, though. His loving mother (June Carter Cash) passes away without being able to say goodbye, and Horace dies from his injuries, which makes the police even more eager to catch up with him, which they do when Jessie hears Sonny performing one of his "fire-and-brimstone" routines on the radio.

As a writer, Duvall has a great gift for dialogue, though some of his plotting is a bit suspect. As a director, he also does an excellent job of addressing some deep themes (redemption and loss) without getting too heavy-handed and preachy.

But he exceeds both with his performance, which is one of the most electrifying of his career. Duvall is very convincing and even sympathetic, despite the demanding nature of the role.

And the supporting turns - from Fawcett, Beasley and Richardson (whose subtle Southern accent sounds very natural, despite the fact that she's actually British) - are almost as good.

"The Apostle" is rated PG-13 for scattered use of profanities (though many of the same words are used in a religious context), violent fist fights (including the shocking confrontation between Sonny and Horace) and a couple of racial epithets.