In an era when producers all over secular Hollywood have been trying to score a juicy slice of that “faith-based” film pie†, The Masked Saint feels like a throwback. Specifically, it’s a throwback to a time when Christian movies were still like Christian rock — goofy and unpolished, with an air of the homemade. I specify “feels like,” because The Masked Saint actually comes from Freestyle Releasing, which also released God’s Not Dead, Left Behind, Do You Believe, and Woodlawn, all movies that typify the new breed of semi-pro faith-baiting.
Despite that pedigree, and despite a lead actor and co-writer (Brett Ganstaff) who was an executive producer on Black Mass (starring Johnny Depp!) The Masked Saint (co-exec produced by Brett’s father, Gary Ganstaff) feels very un-Hollywood. And more importantly, out of step with the faith-based movie establishment, whose strategy, by and large, is to divide the world into evangelical Christians and non, casting the former as the persecuted party.
Wherever he comes from (NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts and Cambridge Business, it turns out), Ganstaff at least looks the part of the babyface (an old wrestling term that applies on every level here). He has that look, of a smoosh-faced, corn-fed, too-clean mama’s boy who sings maudlin hymns with his eyes closed, like the star pupil at Jesus camp. (Yes, I’ve been.) That actually counts as a departure nowadays, when faith-based movies are frequently toplined by fading stars and paid-for spokesmodels.
The Masked Saint is less slickly manufactured than the recent crop of faith-based films on every level, and what it may lack in storytelling technique, it also lacks in persecution complex and strident divisiveness. It isn’t a real competitor to most secular Hollywood product, entertainment-wise, but its heart is in the right place. And that, to me, seems more important, especially in a movie that’s openly preachy.
The plot concerns “Pastor Chris” (Ganstaff), who’s on the verge of quitting his job as a pro wrestler (The Masked Saint!) to become, you guessed it, a pastor. His shady boss, CEO of the WFW, Nicky Stone (played by the dearly departed Rowdy Roddy Piper, doing Vince McMahon better than McMahon does himself), cooks up a little revenge, pitting The Masked Saint against “The Reaper” (symbolism!), who takes this fake wrestling stuff a little too seriously. Part of the fun of The Masked Saint is that it treats pro wrestling as this thing that’s supposed to be an elaborate, goofy pantomime, but is actually a real fight, between good and evil. It’s such a beautiful, confusing metaphor for faith in general, undeniably stagey but still strangely important.
From there, Pastor Chris and his family (his beautiful wife, Michelle, played by Lara Jean Chorostecki, and precocious daughter, played energetically by T.J. McGibbon), pack up and head off to Rolling Spring, Mich. so he can become the new big shot at West Side Baptist. Only there, he discovers a dwindling flock that’s beset by financial troubles, urban blight, and “bad guys” straight out of a Brinks home security ad. (Much like Disney movies, you can usually tell the evil characters in Christian films just by whether they’re overly scrubbed or kind of ugly. Ugly = bad.) Think Dangerous Minds meets Christian Mingle.
At first, Pastor Chris kind of sucks at pastoring, until he gets some straight talk from a wise black matron (Christian movies always have one, it’s a rule) named Miss Edna (Diahann Carroll). Miss Edna knows Pastor Chris’s secret (his wrestling secret) and she urges him to “use his gift.” (Which is… uh… fake wrestling?) That’s when Pastor Chris draws on his wrestling skills to become a better pastor and also clean up the city by solving crime in his pro wrestling mask. Jesus Christ, this movie is complicated.
The storytelling is, shall we say, idiosyncratic, and for that reason alone The Masked Saint will almost certainly be less successful than slickly plotted culture war narratives like Heaven is for Real. But that’s not to say it doesn’t have its moments. In The Masked Saint‘s most transcendent scene, Pastor Chris comes upon a (black) pimp beating one of his (white) hos. She kneels to pray, and the pimp stands her up, yelling “What the hell you prayin’ for? All you got to do is listen to me, girl!” followed by a backhand to the face that leaves her whimpering in the snow.
Pastor Chris, spotting this injustice, jumps back into his beige minivan to transform into his alter ego, then rushes back out to give the pimp a taste of his own medicine. A taste of God’s medicine, disguised like a heartworm pill inside a delicious knuckle sandwich. “Who are you supposed to be, Macho Libre?” the pimp sneers, in one of the film’s best lines.
After disarming the pimp of his lead pipe and leaving him unconscious in a parking lot snowdrift (Pro Wrestling is For Real), The Masked Saint makes sure the girl is okay. “Thank you!” she yells gratefully. “You’re a saint!”
“No…” he says, pausing underneath street light. “I’m just a man,” and runs back to his beige minivan, disappearing into the moonlight.
I nearly stood up and cheered. If faith-based movies could all be like this one gloriously goofy scene, I’d own 10 of them on DVD. It should be noted by the way, that the prostitute in question, played by Danielle Benton, was dressed more chastely than your average 20-something on a night out, in a knee-length skirt with leggings, a cute top and a denim jacket. Later on, when she shows up to Pastor Chris’s church dressed much the same, parishioners flee from her pews like she’s contagious. “Stay away from the whore and her vulgar leggings, everyone! Lycra is the devil’s plaything, bedazzling is a sin!”
It’s at that point, though, that The Masked Saint really shines. Pastor Chris calls on his flock to stop being such judgmental dicks, to line up and welcome the whore into their fold, to forgive her her shameful denim like Jesus would. It’s not a complicated message, and it’s goofily executed, but hey, call me crazy, “Be nice to people” seems a far sweeter (and more constructive) sentiment than “The atheists are out to get you.” You could find fault with the implication that prayer can solve domestic violence (something of a theme, sadly), or with the inconsistent way in which The Masked Saint treats black and white abusers, but if we thinkpiece well-meaning dorks to death they’re just going to turn into their bitter, persecution-obsessed cousins and it won’t be good for anyone.
Eventually, Pastor Chris starts getting drunk on his own holier-than-thou water (ouch, I hurt myself stretching for that one), thinking he’s too cool for school on account of turning the church around and foiling all the town’s armed robberies. It takes another lecture from Miss Edna to make him realize he’s committed the sin of pride, and that’s when he has to humble himself before the Lord, and take on The Reaper in a final, winner-take-all battle for the future of the church. I told you, dude, this movie was really complicated. It’s wrestling, but this time, for real. “There hasn’t been a fair fight in wrestling since the ’70s!” exclaims a bystander.
Hmm, I’m going to need a fact check on that. Anyway, Pastor Chris prepares for his match. “I’ve seen more meat on a cheese sandwich!” someone scoffs. But of course he wins, using an arm lock of dubious efficacy. (I could do an entire separate breakdown of all the improper jiu-jitsu technique depicted in this movie, but that’s a subject for a different essay.) He courageously extends his hand to his fallen opponent, the Reaper reluctantly accepts, they raise hands together, Rocky style, and both West Side Baptist and the future of Christianity are saved. I’m not going to lie, it was a touching moment.
There’s a whooooole lot here to analyze, but I think The Masked Saint is best understood as a love story between a man and his wrestling. He tries to push it away, but deep down he knows he can’t. Wrestling tries to turn him into something he’s not, but finally they accept each other as they are and live happily ever after — Pastor Chris, Christianity, and the pro wrestling. The subtext is that the world had become enamored with heels, like The Reaper, and they needed The Masked Saint to give them hope, to root for the babyface once again.
Look, The Masked Saint isn’t great filmmaking. A lot of the time it isn’t even competent filmmaking. But it’s bold, and it’s charmingly goofy, and in a world of bankrupt profiteering disguised as religion, a faith-based movie that teaches people to be nicer to each other is something that deserves to be celebrated.
†Notably Heaven Is For Real producer Joe Roth in a previous life helped get organized prayer outlawed in public schools.
Vince Mancini is a writer and comedian living in San Francisco. A graduate of Columbia’s non-fiction MFA program, his work has appeared on FilmDrunk, the UPROXX network, the Portland Mercury, the East Bay Express, and all over his mom’s refrigerator. Fan FilmDrunk on Facebook, find the latest movie reviews here.