Part conspiracy theory and part religious message, Left Behind (based on the first in a series of runaway bestsellers by Tim LaHaye and Jerry Jenkins) is a passable, occasionally compelling thriller that turns the rapture and the ascendance of the Antichrist into something resembling a Robert Ludlum espionage potboiler. The beginning, though, is pure Stephen King: as morose pilot Rayford Steele (Brad Johnson) steers his jet plane toward London, comely flight attendant Hattie Daniels (Chelsea Noble) informs him that a number of passengers have disappeared--at 37,000 feet, leaving their neatly pressed clothes behind. And they're not the only ones who've gone missing. The mass disappearances throw the world into chaos, and the sinisterly compelling Nicolae Carpathia (Gordon Currie), head of the U.N., selflessly steps in to help broker peace among the world's nations. But is he as good intentioned as he seems? Turns out the appropriately named Mr. Carpathia is behind a plot to rule the world and control its food supply, and intrepid reporter Buck Williams (Kirk Cameron, better than you'd expect) is onto him--with a little help from some biblical prophecies. Suffering the problem that befalls most first installments in a series of books and movies, Left Behind busies itself with the task of introducing characters and setting up expository plot lines, and audiences may be frustrated by the lack of action--Rayford's somewhat labored crisis of faith takes up a good chunk of the film. Still, it's an intriguing premise that should satisfy fans of the novel and possibly pick up a few more converts along the way (be warned, though, this is a modestly budgeted film that looks more like a cable TV movie than the latest James Bond extravaganza). And, if like a fair number of the film's characters, you can't figure out that someone named "Nicolae Carpathia" is a bad guy, then, well, you need to bone up on your evil villains. --Mark Englehart Arguably the most interesting and compelling feature in the Left Behind trilogy, Left Behind II: Tribulation Force finds the series' major characters--television journalist Buck Williams (Kirk Cameron), passenger jet captain Rayford Steele (Brad Johnson), his daughter Chloe (Janaya Stephens), and Pastor Bruce Barnes (Clarence Gilyard)--forming the core of a group dedicated to infiltrating and disrupting operations of the Anti-Christ, i.e., Nicolae Carpathia (a scary Gordon Currie), who has become leader of a world government. Meanwhile, humankind looks increasingly desolate and bleak, as the reality sinks in that hundreds of millions of people who suddenly vanished--including all the world's children--in the last film are not coming back. Veteran television director Bill Corcoran makes much of his scant resources to paint an apocalyptic vision, and when the film gets to indulge in some nifty effects (a pair of fire-breathing prophets--literally), the result is powerful. Drama, relationships, character development, and performances are quite smooth and should appeal to Christian and non-Christian viewers alike. --Tom Keogh Third in the series, Left Behind: World at War finds the post-Rapture Earth an even bleaker place than in the previous movies. As the Antichrist himself, Nicolae Carpathia (Gordon Currie), uses his newfound powers as head of the world government to bring war and plague on every nation, the American president (Louis Gossett Jr.) teams with a Christian resistance fighter (Jessica Steen) to try to stop him. Meanwhile, series hero Buck Williams (Kirk Cameron) discovers that Carpathia's biological front in a coming apocalypse is particularly devious: Freshly published Bibles are carrying a deadly disease ravaging thousands--and may very likely claim Buck's new bride. Buck's father-in-law, pilot Rayford Steele (Brad Johnson), has problems of his own facing the not-inconsiderable temptations of former flight attendant Hattie Daniels (Chelsea Noble), now one of Carpathia's many lovers. Directed by Craig R. Baxley (Rose Red), Left Behind: World at War is particularly crisp and effective drama, even when the action stops, as it often does, for many of the principals to pray for guidance. Charles Martin Smith (The Untouchables), not seen often enough these days, has a brief but powerful part as the U.S. vice-president. --Tom Keogh
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