The Grace Card (PG-13)

One depressingly common thread among faith-based films is the way conflict is watered down and life’s rough edges are often scrubbed off. A movie can have a message, but rendering even potentially dramatic stories so inoffensive that they bear no relation to reality makes for middling drama.

The Grace Card has drugs, cops and race as ingredients. But the eggshells the screenwriter and director walk on distance the story from the reality it aims to imitate, which robs this tale of loss, grief and redemption of its punch.

The movie is about a white Memphis cop (Michael Joiner) still seething some 17 years after his son was killed by a car driven by a black drug dealer. That lingering rage has shattered “Mac” McDonald’s family. His wife (Joy Parmer Moore) is depressed and desperately looking for help. And their surviving son (Robert Erikson), now 17, is in open revolt and making awful decisions.

Mac’s temperament keeps him from getting promoted at the Memphis PD. So his commanding officer partners this lone wolf with a patrolman who is also a pastor, Sam Wright (Michael Higgenbottom). That mismatch — Pastor Sam sings Jesus Loves Me and Amazing Grace while they’re on patrol, and Patrolman Mac seems to go harder on black suspects than white — creates a tension that the script and director are afraid to mess with.

“I can feel white eyes burning through my black skin,” Sam complains.

We’re treated to scenes of Sam’s home life, his adoring church-singing wife (Dawntoya Thomason) and adorable kids. There’s a “Christian counselor” (Cindy Hodge) who tries to get teenager Blake back on the straight and narrow. And Oscar winner Louis Gossett Jr. plays the sage grandfather who advises Sam to look for “that one act of grace” that will serve as an example to his flock and his partner.

The film hinges on Mac making that classic big mistake that forces him to step back, re-evaluate and find room in his heart, with Sam playing “the grace card,” for religion. No surprises there. But even with a comforting movie with a destination you can easily guess, the writer shouldn’t keep the story as bland as oatmeal and predictable as a revival altar call.

The police work in an ostensibly rough town like Memphis has been utterly sanitized for our protection. The performances are competent but fall far short of compelling. What could have been a moving if unsurprising story of a bitter, lost soul finding forgiveness and redemption fails to move in the least, thanks to filmmakers too timid to play the cards they dealt themselves.

Cast: Michael Joiner, Michael Higgenbottom, Dawntoya Thomason, Louis Gossett Jr.

Director: David G. Evans.

Writer: Howard Klausner.

Producers: Howard Klausner, John Nasraway, John R. Saunders.

A Samuel Goldwyn studios release. Running time: 101 minutes. Violence, thematic elements. Playing at: area theaters.


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