FIREPROOF IS the third movie (and second theatrical release) written, directed, and produced by Christian brothers Alex and Stephen Kendrick. That’s right, it’s next in the line that gave us Facing the Giants, a church-funded effort that blended against-the odds Christian cliché with against-the-odds football cliché. And while it looks like they learned a few things from the biting criticism of their first theatrical baby, the things they didn’t change limit Fireproof’s potential influence to much the same sphere as last time.

I’ll admit I felt conspicuously unmarried walking into the theater for this one (Fireproof concerns itself with a firefighter whose marriage is falling apart). The audience at my screening looked like a marriage seminar crowd, with the usual few teenagers dragged along by their well-meaning parents.

Captain Caleb Holt (Kirk Cameron—haven’t seen him since the rapture), is a driven firefighter whom everyone but his wife Catherine (Erin Bethea), a hospital PR director, applauds and respects. The film opens with a glimpse into Catherine’s childhood hopes for her life: marrying someone as heroic and loving as her own firefighter father. Capt. Holt’s suspiciously foreshadowing instructions to a rookie in the firehouse immediately follow: never leave your partner, especially in a fire.

His words don’t quite carry home. As soon as he walks in the door there’s marital tension, something that’s clearly nothing new for these two. After an overdramatic blowout (Cameron is more convincing as the repentant sinner than the bombastic jerk husband), Catherine sobs that she “wants out.” But Caleb’s father begs him to wait on a divorce for 40 days—enough time to complete a “love dare” consisting of daily loving gestures, random acts of kindness, and lifestyle alterations. And so it begins: Caleb’s at-first-grudging journey toward saving his marriage—which results in his inevitable conversion to Christianity.

Unlike both Flywheel and Facing the Giants, however, this precariously hitched couple doesn’t face a life situation that is adverse to the point of absurdity. The Holt’s problems, rather, hit close to home for many Americans—they live basic lives, have relatable flaws. He looks at pornography, she flirts with the cute doctor at work, and they just can’t seem to relate to each other anymore. Fireproof also has some story concepts going for it that most marriage-breakdown plotlines lack. It challenges the rom-com narrative—the young-love couple who fall in love, fight, and then fall in love again—and offers real life ugliness instead. The idea of “falling in love again” is never actually mentioned. Caleb admits that he and Catherine were in love when they married, but that is not enough to hold them together—a reality that could resonate with just about anyone.

But it will be difficult for a non-believing observer, or anyone not steeped in church doctrine regarding the sanctity of marriage, to understand why this couple, or Caleb’s father for that matter, even bothers with something like a 40-day “love dare.” They don’t love each other any more. There’s no respect, no compatibility, and not even a reference to a beautiful life they used to have that they are striving to reach again. Of course the film’s philosophy is that marriage is worth preserving in itself, but if you missed that memo (which, given the Christian divorce rate, probably includes a lot of people inside church walls), you’ll be wondering why anyone would endure this sort of hassle.

The Kendrick brothers’ filmmaking continues to take small steps up in quality: they put together an impressive camera crew for a small budget. The quickly paced scenes during a fire call have surprising realism and excitement. The acting, however, is still hit-and-miss. Ken Bevel gives the most convincing performance debuting as Lt. Michael Simmons, Holt’s right-hand man at the firehouse. Kirk Cameron himself pulls off some aspects of his character well and others—the “less-Christian” ones—not so much. Erin Bethea, as Catherine, comes off almost wooden until her breakthrough near the end (her most-real moment coming as she tries to fix her make-up while sobbing). The plethora of side-characters, including random firefighters injected for obligatory comic relief, are a mix between enjoyable and oh-please-just-stop.

Improvements aside, this church-turned-film-company has a ways to go before the big time. Like its predecessors, Fireproof is packed with preaching and well-worn imagery (you have to love how that cross in the park keeps conveniently appearing at just the right moment). Usually delivered by Caleb’s dad, the repeated sermons bring the same stiff forced-ness they always do onscreen. Elsewhere, evangelism clichés pepper the dialogue: a forced “where are you going when you die” conversation, the unbeliever referring to Christianity as a “crutch,” a “are you really a good person according to God’s standards,” and the oh-so-coveted “you’ve changed and I want what you have” all making their appearance (and was that a Billy Graham accent his father lets slip a couple times?).

Which brings up a nagging question that the Kendrick brothers, and other aspiring Christian moviemakers, face: how do you present your message with the goal of “reaching the lost” when the people you most want to reach would never willingly enter the theater? Facing the Giants and Fireproof are preaching to the choir. This approach may have value—many Christians live this dialogue every day and need inspiration to transcend it. But if the Kendrick’s dream of competing with blockbuster hits (or even such infinitely stronger faith-related films as Amazing Grace), they’re going to have to modify their approach. Even if their goal is simply to get one skeptic to watch their characters with an open mind.

Cherise Ryan is a Patrol reporter.

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