“THE FIGHTING PREACHER” — 3 stars — David McConnell, Charley Boon, Shawn Stevens, Cassidy Hubert, Richard Benedict; PG (thematic content and some action); in general release; running time: 121 minutes
SALT LAKE CITY — Utah filmmaker T.C. Christensen’s “The Fighting Preacher” uses a unique focus to share a universal message.
Set in the early 20th century, the film follows the real-life struggles of an ex-boxer and his wife as they strive to make inroads for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in an inhospitable community.
Willard Bean (David McConnell) is a former middleweight boxer who appears to be settling down after a career in the ring. But life takes an unexpected turn for Willard and his new bride Rebecca (Cassidy Hubert) when church president Joseph F. Smith calls the couple on a precarious assignment: relocate to upstate New York and take over the newly reacquired Joseph Smith farm in Palmyra.
It’s been 85 years since early church members were persecuted out of town en route to their eventual migration to the Salt Lake Valley, but Willard and Rebecca quickly find that Palmyra still carries a deep bias against the “Mormons.” The local Anti-Mormon League leaves them a notice for a $5,000 bounty on their front door as a housewarming gift, and most of the time, dirty looks are the best reaction the young couple can hope for around town. Even when Rebecca seeks nursing help to deliver her first baby, the town collectively slams its door in the Beans' faces.
Willard has served three different missions prior to his Palmyra assignment, yet in the face of persecution, too often his boxing instincts take over. But despite the satisfaction of knocking out a couple of irritating locals, he and Rebecca gradually determine that the most effective missionary work will require a different strategy — especially if they are to execute the church’s orders to purchase the historic Hill Cumorah site from local landowners.
In time for Pioneer Day, “Fighting Preacher” marks Christensen’s return to more of a pioneer-era setting after his last two films that told more contemporary stories. But while the new film is similar to efforts like 2013’s “Ephraim’s Rescue,” with desaturated visuals and period design, “Fighting Preacher” explores a unique angle on church history, telling the story of how a more established faith began to reconnect with the areas and peoples connected to the original pioneer exodus.
For Latter-day Saints, the new subject matter will underscore Christensen’s missionary message, but on a more universal level, McConnell's Willard works well as an appealing but flawed character trying to work through his weaknesses on behalf of a noble cause. Willard’s arc pulls the story together effectively and gives “Fighting Preacher” a tighter narrative.
“Fighting Preacher” also features some interesting and at times moving moments, such as the late-night sight of Palmyra locals digging for gold on the Hill Cumorah, or a late poignant scene where Willard reveals an unexpected bit of his past with another local.
The moments of sincerity and drama tend to work more consistently than the comic beats, but a strong character arc and an instructive message give “Fighting Preacher’s” unique story some worthwhile meat. Though the results will likely bear the most meaning for members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Christensen’s effort should carry value for anyone interested in the Biblical admonition to “love one another.”
Rating explained: “The Fighting Preacher” is rated PG for some intense moments and fisticuffs.