Every time I begin watching a new movie by filmmakers Alex and Stephen Kendrick, a thought crosses my mind.
Will this be the one that bombs?
My fears are always eased after about 10 minutes, at which point I begin contemplating another question.
Have they topped their most recent film … again?
Such questions are inevitable for the Kendricks, who up until this year had four faith-based movies to their credit: "Flywheel" (2003), "Facing the Giants" (2006), "Fireproof" (2008) and "Courageous" (2011) – each of which was widely considered better than its predecessor.
This week the Kendricks release their fifth movie, "War Room," which is rated PG and stars Priscilla Shirer, T.C. Stallings and Karen Abercrombie, three people you probably don't remember ever seeing on the big screen but three you won't ever forget, for all the right reasons.
So, is "War Room" better than "Courageous," a film that opened in the Top 5? In my view, yes.
"War Room" tells the story of Tony and Elizabeth Jordan, a middle class married dad and mom heading for a likely divorce when a prayer-filled elderly widow – Miss Clara – enters the picture. Elizabeth is the real estate agent trying to sell Miss Clara's house, but she soon learns that Miss Clara's abode is not the typical home. Sure, there is a kitchen, a bathroom and a bedroom, but there's also a room reserved only for one thing: prayer. Dozens of hand-written notes line the walls, listing everything for which she takes to the Lord.
"This is where I do my fighting," Miss Clara says. "This is my war room."
And so Miss Clara begins discipling Elizabeth, trying to help save her marriage and encouraging her to pray for Tony even when he's a jerk (which he is a lot).
"If you give me one hour a week, I can teach you how to fight the right way with the right weapons," Miss Clara says.
"War Room" succeeds as a film for the same reason that "Fireproof" and "Courageous" did: It has a great story, something that is lacking in so many Hollywood films today that give us multi-million-dollar special effects with 10 cent plots. It succeeds because, unlike those same Hollywood films, it does more than just entertain us. "War Room" moves us, convicts us, inspires us. I walked out of "Fireproof" wanting to be a better husband, "Courageous" wanting to be a better dad, and "War Room" wanting to be a prayer warrior. It also succeeds because it has just enough funny moments to allow you to catch your breath between the emotional scenes.
The Kendricks, you see, get it. They know how to make a great movie because they know that story is king. They also get it because they're always working to improve their craft. They're well aware of the "cheesy" label many moviegoers have placed on Christian films, and they understand that even before their next movie hits theaters, a large segment of the Hollywood population already has written it off.
But it's becoming harder and harder to disregard them. For example, "Courageous" in 2011 finished first among four opening weekend films, outperforming a Universal film that had a $50 million budget ("Dream House") and a Fox movie that had a $20 million budget ("What's Your Number?"). "Courageous" had a budget of $2 million – pennies by Hollywood standards. And 2008's "Fireproof" was the top independent film of the year, opening in the Top 5 and ending its run with a $33 million gross – far beyond its $500,000 budget.
It's also becoming harder to disregard them because their movies keep getting better. Stallings' performance in "War Room" is outstanding, and Shirer – who took acting classes for the film -- does incredibly well, too. In fact, they're involved in two of the most powerful scenes I've ever witnessed in a movie – scenes that had me in tears.
All five Kendrick movies are the culmination of a life-long dream Alex Kendrick had to make films to impact the church and culture – which they've certainly done. He and his brother recently calculated that they would have to preach to 1,000 people every Sunday for the next 100 years to reach the same amount of people they reached with "Fireproof" back in 2008.
"We have been surprised at what God has done, in the midst of all our inadequacy," Stephen Kendrick told me recently.
That humility perhaps is one reason God has blessed their ministry so much. I'm not sure they'll ever make a bad movie. But I do know this is another good one.
Entertainment rating: 5 out of 5 stars. Family friendly rating: 5 out of 5 stars.
"War Room" is rated PG for thematic elements. It contains no sexuality or coarse language. Post-movie discussion topics: the power of prayer; the need for a scheduled daily "prayer time;" what Scripture says about prayer; the shallowness of our prayers.