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Film review: Gutsy and challenging, 'God's Army 2' is thriller

Dutcher proves his skills in a movie that takes some chances

GOD'S ARMY 2: STATES OF GRACE — *** 1/2 — Ignacio Serricchio, Lucas Fleischer, Lamont Stephens; rated PG-13 (violence, brief gore).

"God's Army 2: States of Grace" proves that its predecessor, the 2000 hit "God's Army," was no fluke. This nervy follow-up film demonstrates that writer-director Richard Dutcher has skills that place him well above most of his fellow LDS filmmakers.

The film also proves that, if nothing else, Dutcher is a filmmaker who's willing to take chances.

"States of Grace" is a challenging work that may garner positive critical reactions but which may also divide audiences because of some fairly controversial subplot material. (Not to give anything away, but it does feature some adult thematic material — and the PG-13 rating is definitely merited.)

Also, this is no mere sequel.

At times, the film is equal parts drama and thriller, and it goes much further in exploring the fairly weighty concepts of faith and redemption than the first "God's Army." Consequently, it's probably the best movie to emerge from the recent glut of LDS-themed filmmaking.

Dutcher returns to the subject of LDS missionaries serving in parts of Southern California, focusing on Elders Lozano and Farrell (Ignacio Serricchio and Lucas Fleischer), who find themselves caught in the crossfire of a gang shooting.

Lozano, who's scheduled to go home in just a couple of weeks, is able to save the life of one gang member, Carl (Lamont Stephens), with whom the two missionaries had an earlier confrontation. To their surprise, Carl is receptive to their teachings, and he requests an accelerated series of lessons so he can be baptized before Lozano completes his mission.

Meanwhile, the two missionaries have also taken in Louis (Jo-Sei Ikeda), a homeless street preacher who has fallen from grace. And unbeknownst to his mission companion, Farrell has been struggling with his growing attraction to their pretty but troubled neighbor, Holly (Rachel Emmers).

To say that "States of Grace" takes some unexpected turns is to understate. But it also provides a lot of food for thought.

Still, the film is not without problems — not the least of which is its two-hours-plus running time. And newcomer Fleischer is probably the one weak link in the cast.

Serricchio (TV's "General Hospital") has real screen presence, and both Emmers and Stephens are real finds. (Stephens also bears a striking resemblance to Miami Heat center Shaquille O'Neal — though he's a considerably better actor than the NBA star.)

There is also some impressive camera work (courtesy of cinematographer Ken Glassing), and Dutcher makes good use of songs from the Grits and Kirk Franklin & The Family.

And Dutcher's dialogue rings true, which makes some of the more heavily dramatic moments even more effective.

"God's Army 2: States of Grace" is rated PG-13 for a couple of strong scenes of violence (including gang shootings, a stabbing and some vehicular violence) and some brief gore, as well as some adult discussions and themes. Running time: 128 minutes.