“Mercy Streets” is the latest feature film project from squeaky clean, family-friendly Providence Entertainment, the makers of last year’s abysmal Christian-themed thriller “The Omega Code” — and, as that fact suggests, there is an aggressive pro-faith agenda at work in this drama. For devout viewers of the Trinity Broadcasting Network, that element will be enough to not only send them flocking to theatres, but also spread enthusiastic word-of-mouth (as was the case with “Omega”). For everyone else, however, that angle is the only thing that separates this plodding melodrama from most cheap direct-to-video fare.
The not-ready-for-the-big-screen indications come early, when we see that the top-billed star is none other than straight-to-tape stalwart Eric Roberts. Roberts, in fact, only has a supporting role in “Mercy Streets,” taking a back seat to the real lead, a justified unknown by the name of David White (who also produced). White plays John, a recently released convict who quickly falls back under the wing of mentor Rome (Roberts) and into the criminal life. John tries to double-cross Rome, but when the plan unravels, John seeks out estranged brother Jeremiah, a gentle guy studying to become an Episcopal priest. The twist? Jeremiah and John are twins, setting the stage for laughably primitive camera tricks (the brothers never face the camera at the same time, composite shots have an obvious dividing line, etc). When Rome inadvertently kidnaps Jeremiah, John must assume his brother’s identity, and Jeremiah has his darker instincts brought out by Rome’s persuasive ways.
While not especially fresh, there’s nothing inherently wrong with the basic premise of “Mercy Streets.” But such a twin-switch scenario sinks or swims with the actor tackling the dual role, and White isn’t up to the task. He is completely overwrought and unconvincing as the tough John (an early scene that’s designed to establish the character’s mean side is especially embarrassing), and while he fares better as the nice Jeremiah, White isn’t able to convey what should be the conflicted anguish of that character. The air of realism that director Jon Gunn so clearly strives for is also ruined by Roberts’ scenery-chewing theatrics.
Then there’s the matter of the religious agenda. Don’t get me wrong; I have no problem with a film that tries to push a personal belief as long as it goes about it in a compelling way (e.g. “The Contender”). Gunn fails to do so. Despite some arbitrary visual flourishes (slow motion and freeze frames), the film is slowly, lazily paced, and he and co-writer John W. Mann clunkily incorporate the Gospel message — somewhat baffling considering one of the main characters is a minister-in-the-making. As such, when the film suddenly shifts to talk of God and His word, the moments stick out and feel even more preachy than they otherwise would have been.
The softhearted spiritual talk also feels less than sincere considering the amount of violent content in “Mercy Streets”. Bloodshed is fairly minimal, but there are some brutal moments, in particular a couple of fistfighting scenes and one unexpectedly intense beating scene. The positive message behind “Mercy Streets” is good for the entire family, but it seems like wasted effort when the vessel for the message isn’t entirely appropriate for all audiences.