National Geographic Channel’s “Killing Jesus,” airing Sunday and based on the book by Bill O’Reilly and Martin Dugard, is full of agony but comes up really short in the ecstasy department.
O’Reilly and Dugard have a successful cottage industry going with their “Killing” series, which includes “Killing Kennedy” and “Killing Lincoln,” both of which have also made the leap to television.
One moderately intriguing aspect of the NatGeo adaptation of the latest book is that it portrays Jesus as a regular guy. No miracles other than a few happenings that could be either miraculous or coincidental. Here, J.C. is just a good ol’ Nazarene who enjoys a joke here and there as well as hanging with his 12 homies. With the title role played by Haaz Sleiman, with a script by Walon Green and direction by Chris Menaul, “Killing Jesus” offers its title character as the Messiah next door.
The common-man interpretation is enhanced by the script’s adaptation of biblical text in everyday language – no “ye’s,” “thines” or “goests.” Jesus could be ordering a pizza when he almost off-handedly admonishes the crowd to cast the first stone at an unfaithful woman only if they themselves are without sin.
Another thing the film does right is to remind us that Jesus was not the handsome blond guy in the Warren Sallman painting, nor the blue-eyed “King of Kings” played by Hollywood heartthrob Jeffrey Hunter in that 1961 film. Jesus, the Disciples and most of the residents of Jerusalem and Nazareth are Semites. They look as if they belong in the Eastern Mediterranean, not on a Hollywood back lot.
Kelsey Grammer gets special billing in the cast, but as Herod the Great, he beats a hasty but hammy retreat in the film’s opening segment – emoting all the way to the bank, no doubt. Sit back and prepare for your head to spin in the next few minutes as we zip through Jesus’ birth and adolescence, the death of Joseph, and the beginning of his career as the Son of God.
The story chugs along at an almost comically efficient pace, with the well-known highlights of Jesus’ life treated like a clip reel of the New Testament. There are exceptions, such as the Sermon on the Mount, which is a stem-winder of dramatic oration and quite moving, but they are few.
In spite of the script’s breathless shorthand, “Killing Jesus” feels long and bloated. Part of that has to do with how cheesy the production values are. The first thing you notice is the makeup – more to the point, the wigs and beards, which look as though they were picked up from an after-Halloween sale at Target.
Sleiman is an acceptably earthbound Jesus, but other cast members seem to think they’re in a ’50s biblical epic. “True Blood’s” Stephen Moyer makes an imperious Pontius Pilate, but Rufus Sewell makes the Jewish high priest Caiaphas into a cartoon villain. Other cast members include Alexis Rodney as Simon/Peter, Joe Doyle as Judas, Klara Issova as Mary Magdalene, Stephanie Leonidas as a tarted-up Salome, Eoin Macken as an acceptable Antipas, Emmanuelle Chriqui as Herodias and Ahbin Galeya as John the Baptist.
As ham-fisted as the filmmaking is, the anticipated finale is gritty, convincing and moving. We feel the wrenching pain Jesus experiences on the cross. His final words are spoken like a man about to die after hours and hours of unimaginable agony, with resolution and perhaps a bit of relief.
It isn’t enough to rescue the rest of the feeble effort, though. The filmmakers’ biggest mistake seems to be thinking that we already know the story, so why bother dramatizing it effectively? That’s too bad: “Killing Jesus” is, for the most part, a missed opportunity, and despite its few good points, you’re likely to conclude that, once again, the book was better.
“Killing Jesus” airs at 8 p.m. Sunday on National Geographic Channel