Jim Vorel and Kenneth Lowe are connoisseurs of terrible movies. In this occasional series, they watch and then discuss the fallout of a particularly painful film. Be wary of spoilers.
Ken: Jim, I hope you had a solemn and contemplative Easter. I know that this holiday always fills me with a sense of togetherness with my family, and an opportunity to reflect on my faith. Or it would, if I were religious. I am not. And so I think you’ll agree that I am the target demographic for Assassin 33 A.D., a film that is about a hit squad going back in time to assassinate Jesus. Jim, what are your thoughts re: time traveling anti-Jesus hit squads? It’s a wide genre, as you well know.
Jim: My prevailing thought, exiting this mind-numbing movie, is that no film with the premise of “time-traveling Jesus hit squad” has any right to somehow end up as boring as this one. This is one of those cases where you expect batshit craziness based on the synopsis of a film, and then discover it’s really a slog, albeit one that is confounding in its own ways. I already know we’re not going to end up talking about plot very much here, but I do find myself genuinely curious what anyone was THINKING in conceiving Assassin 33 A.D., or who this movie was supposed to be for.
Ken: Well I know what they weren’t thinking: That you grammatically are supposed to put the “A.D.” before the year. Amateurs! I share your befuddlement at how this could possibly have turned into a snoozefest. I think you’ll agree, though, that too much of this production was simply too competent for its own good. The actors know how to read lines. The costumers made an effort. Compared to so many features we dissect here, this is actually made by people who understand what constitutes a movie. They even plant and pay-off several plot points throughout. Somebody who knew how to write a script got paid to do this.
Jim: Oh, on a purely technical level this is definitely one of the most competent things we’ve ever watched for this column. Maybe the MOST competent. But deeply misconceived, all the same. And I will concede that SOME of the performers are all right, although a few of them are a mess. I’ll mention this now before I forget: I know you don’t give a shit about most pop culture Ken, so you might be totally unaware that the blonde woman in the ill-fated car ride in the beginning is former reality TV star Heidi Montag, once the star of The Hills. I have no idea why she’s here, but she’s terrible for the approximately three minutes she’s on camera, and still manages to get #2 billing on Amazon Prime and IMDB regardless.
Ken: Oh how you underestimate me, sir! My interest was immediately piqued when I saw her name come up, and then I laughed out loud when I realized she was acquired for precisely one day of shooting.
Jim: More like “one HOUR” of shooting. This is Heidi “One Take” Montag.
Ken: Which brings us quite handily to our cold open. Jim, I recall another director, Rian Johnson (you may have heard of him) speaking a bit about his own time travel film, Looper, and how he set the first scene in a cornfield so as to prime the viewers for later scenes, which are set at a farm. This is a subtle way directors can set the tone for their film, by implanting the suggestion of a later theme or otherwise hint at the story contained within the movie, even if it begins somewhere very different from where it ends. Our readers will therefore be pleased to note that Assassin 33 A.D. takes the logical step of setting its tone with a cold open involving a wholesome, fresh-faced Christian family—including Montag—getting in a car accident before smash cutting to the old-worldy-font blood-spattered title card.
Jim: “Getting into a car accident” kind of makes it sound like it was a mere fender bender. Let’s be clear: This movie begins with the death of a mother and her two young girls, while husband Brandt seems totally unharmed, even though he was ejected from the car about 50 feet. They were in the middle of uprooting their family so Mr. Brandt, a decorated ex-soldier (or commando of some kind?) could take on a high-paying private security job at a hush-hush research lab.
Ain’t nothin’ horrible gonna happen today!
Jim: Just before dying, Montag assures Brandt that God “is about to do something really miraculous through you.” It’s about as consoling as you would expect it to be.
Ken: You mentioned earlier that you were shocked by the sheer amount of death in this movie. So many innocent people get killed in Assassin 33 A.D. Executed, most of the time.
Jim: I really did not think you could make a faith-based film that involves as many execution-style gunshots to the head as are found in Assassin 33 A.D.
Ken: This film, by the way, seems like it’s espousing a fairly pro-gun strain of Christianity, just in general. It peddles forgiveness, but then the main character warps in and guns down bad guys and stabs the main antagonist.
Jim: I really can’t stress this enough. Here’s an average image from this film, which I think conveys the tone pretty well.
Good old-fashioned, wholesome Christian entertainment.
Ken: Lots of folks exist to get menaced and murdered in this movie, dear readers. Heidi first among them.
Jim: I went online after watching and read some user reviews that stated variations on “great fun for the whole family!”
Ken: Isn’t it just? Our man Brandt has a terrible crisis of faith following the random death of his family. He reports to work the next day for his extremely foreign boss, where he serves as security chief at a research facility. Before that, though, we’re introduced to the other principal characters in the film. I think you should give us the rundown on them.
Jim: Alright, well the very foreign and Islamic boss is named Ahmed, just for the record. He somehow isn’t on the first page of performers listed in IMDB, despite being the film’s primary villain.
Our hero, though, is a tall, gangly white guy nerd named “Ram Goldstein.” He doesn’t believe in God or Jesus, which is calculated in an interesting way given that I don’t think anyone ever comments on his obviously Jewish last name. It seems like a not-so-subtle disparaging of those other non-Christians, if you ask me. Regardless, Ram is an awkward dweeb who is brilliant in physics and excels in Ahmed’s evaluations, so he’s invited to join a research team of fresh-faced college kids who are attempting to develop matter transportation technology. One of which is Amy, another girl in his class that he just so happened to start dating immediately beforehand.
Ken: Amy is the perfect girlfriend! She’s demure and Christian, but she’ll also make out with you and totally doesn’t mind if you promise her a date night but actually just make a couple plates and chill out in your basement. And … have an impromptu dress-up party…?
We just met this afternoon, and there’s absolutely nothing appealing about you, but I’m head-over-heels anyway!
Jim: She’s a classic case of “hot lady falling in love with the protagonist as if she knows he’s the protagonist of the story.” They meet because he absentmindedly bumps into her multiple times, and that one interaction makes her interested in him, Ken. The film doesn’t even attempt to present any reason why she might find him appealing. Not the barest effort is made—she’s just “the woman in the movie,” so therefore she must love the protagonist.
Ken: She also has the thankless task of being “the Christian” in the movie, the one who is made fun of and not taken seriously because she is Christian.
Jim: I also love that the research team they form is apparently just meant to be four freshly graduated (or still in school?) kids, who are working independently on creating teleportation technology. No older advisers. No senior scientists. Just a quartet of 21-year-olds loose in a laboratory, although Ram has an odd face that sometimes makes him look about 40.
Ken: They also are calculated to be a coalition of safely-Christianize-able young folk. You’ve got Simon, who is your “urban” youth. (He’s black.) And we’ve got “Felix,” who I think, I THINK, is supposed to be Latino.
Jim: I believe you are right, but his most notable trait is basically not having any lines or participating in the story in any meaningful way.
But yeah, that’s our principal cast of four characters. They make some early breakthroughs on their teleporter before Ram discovers the key to it all—they’re actually moving objects through space AND time, meaning that he’s effectively built a time machine. However, this is also the point when the rest of the team discovers that Ahmed and his men are straight-up Islamic terrorists working for some kind of Bin Laden-esque figure who wanted to use the teleportation tech to move bombs to any GPS coordinates.
How this film would prefer you to picture every Muslim on Earth.
Ken: Oh I have to tell folks how they discover it! Ram and Amy are making out behind the servers because that means they’re away from the prying eyes of the CCTV cameras. Ram NOTICES SOMEBODY HACKING THE SERVER. By LOOKING AT IT—the physical box that is the server, not like, scrolling netcode or anything. And then he plugs into it, hacks the feed, and snoops on the Bin Laden-type talking with their boss, who is even more evil than Ahmed.
Jim: But Ahmed is still the main villain, regardless, given that the other terrorist he’s on a video chat with never appears again in the film. I have to make this clear: Everything with the character of Ahmed is really, really strange. Did you catch his backstory, and ultimately his motivation for wanting to use this time machine to go back and kill Jesus?
Ken: Jim, how could I miss Ahmed’s motivation? He is a militant Islamic terrorist because his Christian parents were killed … by militant Islamic terrorists.
“It must be Stockholm Syndrome,” says Ram or somebody.
That line, alone in the movie, had me howling.
Jim: This threw me for a loop. One line of throwaway dialog from Ram is supposed to explain why this man, whose parents were murdered by Islamic terrorists, is himself an Islamic terrorist. His Christian parents being executed makes him … furious with Christians, to the point that he wants to kill Christ, who he doesn’t believe was divine. He even mentions at one point that “Jesus would want it this way” because he seems to think even Jesus didn’t really believe he was the Messiah? His motivations are incredibly confusing.
Ken: Jim, the main thing is that we know that Muslims are bad.
Jim: But “not all Muslims,” though, because the film wants to make sure you don’t label it as racist. There’s a part where Simon or Felix says, “Why would Muslims do that?” And Ram replies, “They wouldn’t, but Ahmed’s part of an extremist group.” So there, it’s only the bad Muslims. The film trusts you can tell the good Muslims from the bad ones in your daily life on a case-by-case basis, and brandish your guns accordingly.
Ken: Jim, some of our readers may not be aware that Islam does actually recognize Jesus as a prophet, though not as the Messiah. This is acknowledged by the one kinda-good henchman in this movie, but overall, if we hadn’t already written about Laser Mission, this would be the most xenophobic damn movie we’ve ever examined here.
Oh, and Jesus is played by former American Idol contestant Jason Castro, by the way.
Jim: The characters in this particular film have this way of not reacting like normal human beings would to any information, which is one of the disorienting things about watching it. People keep learning that time travel has been discovered, and nobody reacts to that news with even a modicum of surprise. Same thing when various people learn there’s a plot to kill Jesus. There’s no, “Excuse me, say that again?”
Security chief Brandt in particular loves to no-sell just about everything he sees. Once Ram gets wise to the plan and starts withholding time travel secrets, Ahmed drags Ram’s parents in to be held at gunpoint and executed, and Brandt just stands there not really giving a shit. It’s like they’re saying that just because he no longer believes in God, he’s now okay with the company shooting people, torturing its employees and imprisoning them as slaves. Because no non-Christian has even the slightest moral compass.
Ken: It’s so hilarious how little impact anything seems to have throughout the whole film. There are things in this film that should have unbelievable consequences, and yet the characters just all sort of roll with it.
Jim: My favorite line in the movie comes when Brandt is like, “Should we execute his parents, though?”, and Ahmed replies (this is word for word): “I’m not really going to kill them; I’m just being persuasive. And even if I did, we could just use the time machine to bring them back!”
That makes it all fine! Ken, I hope that one day I’m in a scenario where I can say, “I’m not really going to kill you; I’m just being persuasive.” Possibly to a used car salesman, or a customer service person from Comcast?
Ken: I mean, the Punisher says that all the time. Brandt doesn’t immediately run to the authorities with any of this information, by the way. He just goes and mopes, sitting on the stairs at the science lab facility that seems like it’s actually a community college campus.
Jim: Which is not to say that the production values are all abhorrent, although it is indeed obviously a community college. Once they send the strike force back in time to kill Jesus, a lot of the historical stuff actually looks quite good, for an indie movie. Now go ahead and tell the people what happens when the soldiers head back to actually accomplish their Jesus-killing mission.
Ken: Jim, how I’ve longed to hear that very question from you. Jesus and the disciples are minding their own damn business when a strike team in full 21st-century tactical gear with automatic weapons materializes right in front of them and starts shooting. Romans and disciples are all killed in seconds. And then, Brandt achieves his mission: He shoots Jesus, has him dead to rights, and Jesus talks to him in English, seemingly resigned to his fate. And then Brandt shoots him in the head.
This happens in this movie.
Jim: One of the soldiers then says something like “bag him,” referring to Jesus’ corpse, and I couldn’t stop laughing.
Ken: It’s just played so straight! You want to laugh, but they’re just not throwing you a bone at all. This is a movie that should be starring Bruce Campbell or something.
Jim: Yes! It’s not even dramatized all that much, which makes it feel even weirder. This kicks off the slapdash middle portion of the movie where the characters are leaping about to different timelines, sometimes coming across future or later versions of themselves and trying to communicate information, or trying to prevent one thing from happening to stop another thing from happening. It quickly becomes completely indecipherable. It’s just a morass for about 30 minutes or so of dead space.
We do get to see most of the main characters gunned down and executed at various points, though. I don’t know if you ever saw Happy Death Day, but that’s what it starts to feel like.
Just guys in robes, running around with guns for 30 or 40 minutes.
Ken: I know arguing this stuff is utterly, utterly pointless, but one of the things that breaks any time travel movie is “when does the causality reach the future?” It should be instantaneous from our perspective in the future, right? But no, waves of future weirdness take a measurable amount of time to take effect in the future here. Why, Jim? Why is there a wind-up on causality? This movie is so much more complicated than it needs to be. At one point, Ram goes back to the future, but his return time is fudged because of daylight savings, so he arrives an hour earlier than he intended. Why is this movie so hard to follow??
Jim: I really don’t know. They could have played the sci-fi stuff SUPER soft and the Christian audience wouldn’t have cared, but instead they decide to overcomplicate everything. This movie should have been pulpy in tone, Ken, even if it was being made by Christians. Instead, it’s extremely self-serious.
Speaking of that causality, though, at one point we do see what the future would be like if Ahmed successfully had Jesus killed. The air shimmers and the setting transforms into a green-tinted hellscape of ruined buildings and charred bodies. Standard Matrix-style apocalypse, in other words. Felix explains that a world without Christianity is “a world without forgiveness,” even as he totally misses the irony of the fact that he would never forgive any of these evil Muslims.
“We do know that it was the Muslims who scorched the sky…”
Ken: This is the point at which it’s really difficult to summarize this, so I think we should try to just get through it as quickly as possible: Ram and his friends enter into a bunch of shenanigans to try to stop Ahmed, resulting in several iterations of them getting killed. Simon has a protracted heart to heart with Jesus, during which he says he’s “seen your movie on bootleg” and knows how things end. Jesus can speak English to the characters, but he needs to close his eyes and concentrate to download it first. I was going to make a Matrix joke, but you already beat me to it earlier, and we are not allowed more than one per Bad Movie Diary.
Jim: Later on, Simon, describing Jesus, says “there’s somethin’ special about this dude.”
Ken: Again, people openly remark upon how nuts it is that he knows English, Jim. The other characters in A.D. 33 do not speak English. There is in fact a completely laugh-out-loud part where one of Ahmed’s henchmen steps to a Roman centurion who is clearly telling him to back off, and he pulls a gun out and shoots the guy for the offense of speaking Latin to him. It is absurd, is what I’m saying.
Ken: Quite. This all leads to Ram and our intrepid heroes ensuring that Jesus makes it to his all-important crucifixion, although Amy is gut-shot along the way and spends most of the time unconscious and dying verrrrry slowly.
Ken: Man, Amy getting gut-shot is a whole thing. This results in her being unable to follow Ram and thus imploring him to “Save Jesus.” Every time somebody says the savior’s name in this movie, it is an unintentional laugh line.
Jim: It really is. I’m laughing right now, just remembering the tone in her voice every time she says something about Jesus. If you were curious, Amy was played by an actress named Ilsa Levine, who has … literally just this film credited on her IMDB page. I looked her up, and her primary business seems to be acting as some sort of romantic relationship advice guru. This might very well be her first acting gig, is what I’m saying. And it’s not not clear.
Ken: The worst offense of this stinker is that almost nobody really acquits themselves badly enough in it. I know it’s mean to root for actors to fail, but can I get just a little bit of camp?
Jim: I would argue that the performance of Morgan Roberts, who plays Ram, really breaks down as the film races to its conclusion because he can’t seem to handle all the crying and whining that it entails. He spends the last 20 minutes or so of the film with this look permanently on his face.
Sir, please, I asked you not to do that.
Ken: He’s carrying the whole weight of the film, too. Ram witnesses the resurrection itself, which involves Jesus’ body warping out of the tomb as the ground shakes. Ahmed had barricaded himself inside the tomb to prevent any non-miraculous people from removing the body. Silly non-believer!
Jim: You certainly can’t buy Ram as some kind of action hero, which is what the script seems to want him to be. Especially when he then unsheathes his big line: “It’s time for my own resurrection.” I … don’t really know what it’s supposed to mean, but the writer must have thought it sounded cool.
Ken: He’s certainly not suited for the big finale, in which he outmaneuvers Ahmed and warps back to the minute he has Ram’s parents killed. Ram busts in like Rambo (Ram-bo if you will) and guns down the bad guys, and gets Brandt dead to rights as well, despite the fact that in this chronology Brandt is actually just a sad, conflicted henchman whose family died.
But this is a Christian film! So we must forgive the white guy. But not the Muslim guy, who Ram kills with the same dagger that killed Ahmed’s parents.
Jim: Neither you nor I are any kind of expert on Christian film, Ken. But I can’t imagine that many of them end with someone stabbing a man to death. That just doesn’t seem like it would be common.
Ken: Certainly not based on the ones I’ve seen or heard tell of.
Jim: Somewhere along the way there, Ram also provides one of the most roundabout theological proofs I’ve heard as well. He says something like, “I’m mad at God about all this. How can I be mad at something if it doesn’t exist?” Ah, CHECKMATE! Try squirming out of that airtight logical trap, you heathens.
Ken: When we dragged Best Friend from Heaven through the briar patch, we complained about the fact it was saccharine and largely without incident. But you can at least say it was definitely playing to its audience. This film … I don’t know, man. Who is this aimed at?
Jim: I’m glad you brought that up, Ken, because I fully intended to, as well. The truth is, I have no idea. I can’t conceive how the same audience that actively seeks out something like Best Friend from Heaven would have any interest in the kind of dire, ugly, ultraviolent spirit found in Assassin 33 A.D..
Ken: It certainly seems like it missed the mark for guys like us, who take some joy in silly action fare. I heard about this while surfing Twitter and immediately thought it had to be a must-watch based on the premise. I’m sad to say it’s just a total oddity.
And for those who were wondering whether Jesus is saved, whether Ram learns to be faithful and forgive, and whether Brandt gets his happy ending, fear not. Ram zaps back in time and averts the traffic accident, so we can get two more minutes of Heidi Montag on screen, this time not dying.
It is technically accurate to say that this film is a 105 minute build to send a nerd with a traffic sign back in time in order to save Heidi Montag.
Jim: I thought Assassin 33 A.D. was going to basically be a pro-Christian exploitation action movie, but it’s both stranger and more mundane than that at the same time. It’s arguably more convoluted time-travel thriller than it is Christian film, at the end of the day. Or maybe 60-40 in favor of incomprehensible paradoxes? I can say one thing without reservation, though: It’s about 10 times as violent as any other faith-based film I’ve ever seen.
Ken: We never did follow up on The Mark 2, though.
Jim: Oh god, I’d forgotten all about that one. That probably would have been preferable to this, sadly.
Ken: Almost anything would have been. I think we can safely leave this one in the tomb, Jim. Hopefully you’ll have something better for our next feature.
Jim: I think we’re going to have to really open up the throttle after this, and subject you to something with more mind-altering properties.
Ken: God help us all. Until next, Jim.
Jim Vorel is a Paste staff writer, and you can follow him on Twitter. Kenneth Lowe is a contributing writer for Paste, and you can read more of his writing at his blog.