Branding itself as “based on a true story,” “For Greater Glory” appears more interested in offering every cheap cinematic trick in the book. An overwrought, overlong recreation of the Cristero War, the movie eschews essential details of time and location to fetishize violence as a way to celebrate faith. Not that Catholicism has ever shied away from elaborate acts of pain and suffering, yet “For Greater Glory” doesn’t have the benefit of good taste, or filmmaking clarity for that matter, laboring over death and devastation as a way to keep viewers glued to their seats. Treating the conflict with the complexity it deserves is a foreign concept to this production, which takes its cues from the Mel Gibson School of Screen Martyrdom, making sure this education on Mexican history carries significant ugliness.
“For Greater Good” runs a punishing 135 minutes, yet little storytelling is actually realized during this time. The pedestrian screenplay by Michael Love keeps motivations on a surface level, rarely breaking through to appreciate Velarde’s decision to accept the path of God as a means of patriotism, or Calles’s decision to establish anticlerical legislation. Patches of thought remain over the extended run time, but “For Greater Good” doesn’t achieve the level of sophisticated insight history requires, more content to turn this holy war into a western, complete with black hats and white hats, train hijackings, horse brutality, and six-shooter gunfights.
This is an R-rated movie that takes its violence seriously, as director Dean Wright (a former visual effects artist) rarely turns down an opportunity to contort the nuance of war into a theme park stunt show, staging countless skirmishes between Calles’s faceless army and the Cristeros, with slo-mo deaths and bottomless ammunition assisting in the screen fantasy, which always seems miles away from the ugliness of actual warfare. Guns blaze repeatedly in the picture, which employs violence as a means to keep the pace rolling along, sticking to an action figure mentality that’s tiring and wholly unenlightening. Performances from the likes of Garcia (who should bottle his ability to communicate passion and sell it nationwide) and Blades are too good for the feature, expressing conviction and contemplation in a manner that’s seldom supported by the filmmaking, hinting at a path “For Greater Good” could’ve taken to examine the conflict on a human level, taking on the atrocities and violations of civil liberties with a psychological intensity, leading with paralyzing intimacy instead of bullet wounds.
The story weaves in American interests, following Ambassador Morrow (Bruce Greenwood) as he meets with Calles, hoping to protect a future of Mexican oil by secretly arming the government -- a potentially explosive development quickly dropped by the script. Instead of a larger awareness of world interests, the final act of “For Greater Glory” fixates on the saga of Lalo, who’s captured by the Mexican army, presumably hung (the picture’s editing is confusing at times), tortured, and then stabbed for his allegiance to the Cristeros. This true story climaxes with the extended Jesus-esque torment of a child and true believer, with Wright turning the film into “The Passion of the Lalo.” The climax is insultingly manipulative, yet it’s a perfectly fitting end to a movie of repeated cheap shots. Why leave the audience with an understanding of historical textures when they can leave disgusted instead?