Movie review: 'Saints and Soldiers'

2 stars (out of 4)

The World War II drama "Saints and Soldiers" seems awfully familiar: When a ragtag group of grunts get caught behind German lines, they must rely on one another to smuggle vital intelligence to the Allies. In the process, they learn each other's secrets and must respect their cultural differences to build trust and survive.

Sounds like "Saving Private Ryan" and a lot of other war movies, huh?

It is and it isn't. "Saints and Soldiers" comes from a religious school of filmmaking that has its roots in the Church of Latter Day Saints, with films such as "God's Army" and John Groberg's "The Other Side of Heaven."

Director Ryan Little's "Saints and Soldiers" distinguishes itself by (mostly) avoiding the tendency of faith-based films to sacrifice character-driven storytelling in favor of a moral lesson. It also takes pains to make its message nondenominational, which increases its Christian crossover appeal.

Though handsomely shot, Geoffrey Panos and Matt Whitaker's screenplay shackles its characters with stale dialogue straight out of decades-old Sgt. Rock comic books.

"What the hell are we doing here? This is crazy. I should be home right now," says senior officer Gordon Gunderson (Peter Holden), as if movie soldiers over seven decades haven't been mouthing similar sentiments.

Gunderson's buddy and the movie's central figure is Cpl. Nathan "Deacon" Greer (Corbin Allred), a shell-shocked soldier haunted by the innocent blood he has spilled. A missionary in Germany before the war, Greer remains the group's only German-speaking asset, which provides an unlikely and sadly unbelievable twist toward the end that burns away any credibility the first part of "Saints and Soldiers" earns with audiences.

But if nothing else, Little's miniature epic should be taught to film students in a course titled, "Getting the Most Bang For Your Buck." "Saints and Soldiers" looks great and creates a whole world from its low-budget production with little more than snow, uniforms and confidence in its historical authenticity, even if the character accents are shaky at best among the competent actors.

If only production value equaled solid storytelling, Little's war story of faith might be more compelling. Right now, it's the movie equivalent of singing "Onward Christian Soldiers" to those already in the choir.

'Saints and Soldiers'

Directed by Ryan Little; screenplay by Geoffrey Panos and Matt Whitaker; photographed by Ryan Little; production design by Steven A. Lee; music by J Bateman and Bart Hendrickson; edited by Wynn Hougaard; produced by Adam Abel and Ryan Little. An Excel Entertainment release; opens Friday. Running time: 1:30. MPAA rating: Rated PG-13 (war violence and related images).

Nathan 'Deacon' Greer - Corbin Allred
Steven Gould - Alexander Niver
Gordon Gunderson - Peter Holden
Shirl Kendrick - Lawrence Bagby
Oberon Winley - Kirby Heyborne

Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times
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