|Hollywood once again pauses to consider the Christian market, served this time not by Mel Gibson and controversy but by Sherwood Pictures, the movie-making ministry of Sherwood Baptist Church in Albany, Ga.
"Fireproof" stars Kirk Cameron ("Growing Pains," "Left Behind") as Caleb Holt, a firefighter whose marriage is about to cave completely in. Rather than let a commitment fade, Caleb's father encourages Caleb to take "the Love Dare," a 40-day challenge to love his wife, regardless of whether he feels like it, and regardless of how she responds.
Caleb, who has rejected any sort of faith commitment, reluctantly promises his Christian father he'll give it a shot. Caleb's execution of the dare comprises the narrative backbone of the film, which runs just over two hours.
"Fireproof" succeeds as the Christian-genre film it was produced to be. However, it does not advance "Christian cinema" such that many non-Christians would find "Fireproof" attractive in its own right.
"Fireproof" is a marvelous case study of Christian sub-culture. As a genre film, it lands squarely on its feet—and on top of that cash pile. There's no cursing, no sex and no physical violence—other than Caleb using a baseball bat to take out his relational frustrations on a garbage can. More importantly, it delivers the genre's sine qua non: the salvation scene. In it, Caleb is presented not only with Jesus, but with the idea that a person can't really love unless he or she knows Jesus. (While this point about Jesus may be simply taken by the devout, isn't it troublesome to suggest that, say, Jews who practice their faith can't really love or have stable marriages?)
Nevertheless, the PG-rated "Fireproof" can be, and was, marketed to churches, which bought up entire theaters in advance and gave free tickets to church and community members—including firefighters and other first responders. The movie's marriage theme serves as a focal point for congregations trying to bolster marriages—always a good thing—via Bible studies, mentoring programs, retreats and the like.
"Fireproof" is bothersome for the same reasons it succeeds: its explicitness. Christian audiences cheer for the same reasons non-Christian audiences won't. There is no subtext; anything important here is verbalized without qualification or nuance. Any emotional resonance is pre-packaged for us.
The filmmaking team of Alex and Stephen Kendrick (ministers at Sherwood) relied here, as in their previous films "Facing the Giants" and "Flywheel," on nonprofessional actors—with the exception of Cameron. That pulls the viewer out of suspended disbelief, though sometimes it is endearing, especially in the case of Caleb's firehouse buddies.
The Kendricks used church members and community friends, in front of and behind the camera. They shot in Albany, used volunteers for set and costume work, relied on donations and got creative when roadblocks arose. For a budget of $500,000 and a volunteer army, "Fireproof" works pretty well in terms of its production values. A professional director of photography was employed, and the final look of the film is an achievement for Sherwood.
"Fireproof" treads lightly on the theology of male headship. A Christian-genre film about marriage could have played the "headship of the husband" card, and it's curious as to why this film didn't. Some comments in the press by some of the principals involved go down that road, but it's mostly if not completely absent from the film. And though Caleb obsesses in the film's first half about how his wife doesn't "respect" him (vis-à-vis Ephesians 5, if Caleb read his Bible), no one ever counsels wife Catherine (Erin Bethea) to quit her PR job at the hospital and go home to make babies.
Though "Fireproof," as a screen story, may lack rhythm and subtext, the filmmakers deserve kudos for finding and executing some really comedic moments, like those involving Caleb's neighbor and his friends at the firehouse.
Sherwood Pictures knows it audience, and with a marketing approach getting that audience into theaters, all systems will be go for another film.
Cliff Vaughn is culture editor for EthicsDaily.com.
MPAA Rating: PG for thematic material and some peril.
Director: Alex Kendrick
Writers: Alex and Stephen Kendrick
Cast: Caleb Holt: Kirk Cameron; Catherine Holt: Erin Bethea; Michael Simmons: Ken Bevel.