SAN FRANCISCO — National Geographic Channel's Killing Jesus, airing Sunday and based on the book by Bill O'Reilly and Martin Dugard, is full of agony but comes up really short in the ecstasy department.
O'Reilly and Dugard have a successful cottage industry going with their Killing series, which includes Killing Kennedy and Killing Lincoln, both of which have also made the leap to television.
One moderately intriguing aspect of the NatGeo adaptation of the latest book is that it portrays Jesus as a regular guy. No miracles per se, other than a few happenings that could be either miraculous or coincidental. Here, JC is just a good ol' Nazarene who enjoys a joke here and there as well as hanging with his 12 homies. With the title role played by Haaz Sleiman, with a script by Walon Green and direction by Chris Menaul, Killing Jesus offers its title character as the Messiah next door.
The common-man interpretation is enhanced by the script's adaptation of biblical text in everyday language. Jesus could be ordering a pizza when he admonishes the crowd to cast the first stone at an unfaithful woman only if they themselves are without sin.
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Another thing the film does right is to remind us that Jesus was not a handsome blond guy. Jesus, the Disciples and most of the residents of Jerusalem and Nazareth look as if they belong in the Eastern Mediterranean, not on a Hollywood back lot.
Kelsey Grammer gets special billing, but as Herod the Great, he beats a hasty but hammy retreat in the film's opening segment. Prepare for your head to spin in the next few minutes as we zip through Jesus' birth and adolescence, the death of Joseph, and the beginning of his career as the Son of God.
The story chugs along at an almost comically efficient pace, with the well-known highlights of Jesus' life treated like a clip reel of the New Testament. There are exceptions, such as the Sermon on the Mount, but they are few.
As ham-fisted as the filmmaking is, the anticipated finale is gritty and moving. We feel the wrenching pain Jesus experiences on the cross. His final words are spoken like a man about to die after hours of unimaginable agony, with resolution and perhaps a bit of relief.
It isn't enough to rescue the rest of the feeble effort, though. The filmmakers' biggest mistake seems to be thinking that we already know the story, so why bother dramatizing it effectively? That's too bad: Killing Jesus is, for the most part, a missed opportunity, and despite its few good points, you're likely to conclude that, once again, the book was better.