A Matter of Timing : When Life Collides With the Movies, It's Praise the News and 'Pass the Ammo'

"Everybody's saying, 'Did you guys engineer all this--or what?' There's no doubt about it. We've got the perfect publicity tie-in." With that, a spokesman for New Century/Vista distribution company laughed and added, "Thank God!"

"Pass the Ammo," a feature film that satirizes religion and television--and TV evangelists--does seem timely in light of the current scandal involving TV preacher Jimmy Swaggart.

In fact, the black comedy--which opens March 4 at about 50 theaters in and around Los Angeles and Tucson--was just wrapping production in Eureka Springs, Ark., when the Jim and Tammy Bakker brouhaha broke.

Not that "Pass the Ammo" purports to be about any particular TV preacher.

"We sort of went after all the TV evangelists in the whole TV scene, and then Jim and Tammy did their whole PR thing for us," said director David Beaird. "I took it as a sign from God."

In fact, when the Bakker scandal broke, said the New Century/Vista representative, "our movie first began to be considered newsworthy. But we don't want to misrepresent ourselves," he hastened to add. "We may have a movie about a corrupt evangelist (played by Tim Curry) and his wife (Annie Potts), and they may be flamboyant, but this movie isn't a Jim and Tammy-type story."

Then again, said Beaird, there is that scene where the evangelist's wife discovers that he's been having an affair with his secretary. . . .

And, according to reports from Annie Potts, Curry used a "Swaggart-esque" dialect for his portrayal. . . .

"Well. He really kind of mixed it up. The whole film mixes it up," said Beaird. "We really observed a particular world , a lot--and there's a faith-healing scene in the movie that comes straight out of a faith-healing ceremony I witnessed here in L.A.--and then we came up with an amalgam."

Written by Neil Cohen and Joel Cohen (they are not related), the story finds a Robin Hood-like gang (led by Bill Paxton, the crazed Marine in "Aliens," and Linda Kowslowski, who played " 'Crocodile Dundee's" girlfriend) attempting to rob the burgeoning vaults of the citadel-like TV studios where their "Tower of Bethlehem" show is broadcast. But there's a snafu--and the "Tower of Bethlehem's" stars become live on-the-air hostages. Which means TV audiences get to witness a series of revelations.

The folks who are marketing this movie aren't ignoring the spate of recent revelations about TV evangelists.

An ad touting the film's release (it appeared in Sunday Calendar) was created to look like a religious announcement heralding a church service. It heralded "The comedy you've been praying for"--and declared: "All denominations welcomed, especially tens and twenties." (Oh, they'll also accept "checks, cash and all major credit and gas cards.")

All of which harkens to something that might be dubbed "The China Syndrome" syndrome. The syndrome surfaced when the near-tragedy developed at the Three Mile Island nuclear power plant 12 days after the release of the 1979 film. More recently, the syndrome resurfaced with "Wall Street," which opened just weeks after Black Monday.

Not everyone associated with "Pass the Ammo" is pleased to see real-life events colliding with the events in their movie, however.

"I'd thought our film would be condemned by a lot of these TV preachers. And I was kind of looking forward to the controversy," said Beaird. "It would be pretty hard, now, to say that any of the accusations we're making in this movie are untrue."

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