The wind was a torrent of darkness among the gusty trees.
The moon was a ghostly galleon tossed upon cloudy seas.
The road was a ribbon of moonlight over the purple moor,
And the highwayman came riding—
The highwayman came riding, up to the old inn-door.
He’d a French cocked-hat on his forehead, a bunch of lace at his chin,
A coat of the claret velvet, and breeches of brown doe-skin.
They fitted with never a wrinkle. His boots were up to the thigh.
And he rode with a jewelled twinkle,
His pistol butts a-twinkle,
His rapier hilt a-twinkle, under the jewelled sky.
Over the cobbles he clattered and clashed in the dark inn-yard.
He tapped with his whip on the shutters, but all was locked and barred.
He whistled a tune to the window, and who should be waiting there
But the landlord’s black-eyed daughter,
Bess, the landlord’s daughter,
Plaiting a dark red love-knot into her long black hair.
These first three stanzas to Alfred Noyes’ classic poem “The Highwayman” could have been a scene in director Chad Burns’ faith-based action-adventure film, “Beyond the Mask.” Writers Paul McCusker (writer and director, “Adventures in Odyssey,” “Bonhoeffer,” “The Chronicles of Narnia” radio dramas) and Stephen Kendrick (“Facing the Giants,” “Fireproof,” “Courageous”) tell a fast-paced story of historical fiction with a dash of steampunk.
The action starts in England, 1775, when William Reynolds (Andrew Cheney, “Seasons of Gray”) is ready to retire from his career as assassin for the East India Co. His employer, Charles Kemp (John Rhys-Davies, “The Lord of the Rings” Trilogy, “Raiders of the Lost Ark,” “Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade”) has a different plan: deploy Reynolds to the American colonies to disrupt the rebellion and strengthen the interests of the East India Co. in the New World. When Reynolds refuses, Kemp arranges for him to have an “accident.” After a clergyman pays the ultimate sacrifice to save his life, Reynolds assumes his identity and falls in love with a young gentlewoman named Charlotte (Kara Killmer, “Chicago Fire”). When his dark past comes back to haunt him, he flees to the American colonies in order to make a good name for himself to earn the love and respect of Charlotte. Donning the mask of a vigilante, Reynolds is pursued by the authorities as much as he is by the East India Co. in his quest to expose Kemp’s evil deeds and save Philadelphia—and the Declaration of Independence—from a Guy Fawkes-inspired gunpowder plot.
“Beyond the Mask” contains homages to classic literature and film as well as comics and superheroes. The swashbuckling derring-do of Reynolds follows the traditions marked by such pens as Alexandre Dumas and Rafael Sabatini and cinematic swordsmen like Errol Flynn and Stewart Granger. The action transitions into distinct phases that lend a serialized feel to the film, not unlike the weekly adventures of a Victorian penny dreadful. Like many masked heroes, Reynolds works as a printer—only instead of Perry White or J. Jonah Jameson, his editor-in-chief is none other than Benjamin Franklin himself. The Pennsylvania press coined a name for the masked vigilante—“the Highwayman,” a nod to the classic poem by Alfred Noyes. Pleased with the publicity his adventures garner in his own paper, Reynolds pins stories of his exploits on the wall of his room. The film also features some steampunk elements integral to the story that build on historical experiments by Benjamin Franklin.
The romance in the film is refreshingly old-fashioned. Reynolds determines to become a new man and follows the code of courtship carefully. When Charlotte explains that she needs more time to think over Reynolds’ proposal, he respects her decision and agrees to wait. Garden walks and lakeside meetings bring a Jane Austen feel to the love scenes.
Charlotte’s screen presence offers more than romance. She rounds out Reynolds by serving as his inspiration to heroism and his guiding light to the realization that redemption is not earned, but freely given by God. She also acts as a heroine in her own right. She pulls a few fast ones with her sharp wit and her connections allow her to infiltrate circles that Reynolds can’t.
The costuming and set design creates a convincing Colonial and old English atmosphere. The filmmakers chose interesting locations to set the action, from a Gothic parsonage to an isolated windmill to a colorful masquerade ball.
“Beyond the Mask” has some shortcomings as well. The climactic showdown is weaker compared to the film’s previous action scenes. Some moments of Reynold’s redemptive journey feel forced, and the romance scenes are at times campy. The visual effects for explosions and the electricity from steampunk devices are computer generated.
Yet as a sum of its parts, “Beyond the Mask” is a well-made swashbuckler suitable for family viewing. It doesn’t skimp on the action with a fast-paced plot full of narrow escapes, brawls, swordfights, and cloak-and-dagger intrigue.
“Beyond the Mask” is now available on DVD and Blu-Ray.