Randall Wallace, Greg Kinnear

Director Randall Wallace, left, and Greg Kinnear on the set of TriStar Pictures' faith-based movie "Heaven Is for Real." (Allen Fraser / TriStar Pictures)

For those familiar with Randall Wallace’s cinematic oeuvre, the Oscar-nominated writer-director’s efforts can be understood to fall into two distinct categories: films following heroes on do-or-die missions and those following heroes who conquer incredible odds to win come-from-behind victories.

In the first category: the period action-dramas “Braveheart” and “We Were Soldiers” (both written by Wallace and starring a pre-rageaholic Mel Gibson). In the second: the Musketeer thriller “The Man in the Iron Mask” and the equestrian sports drama “Secretariat” (films Wallace wrote and directed).

But when it comes to his latest movie, “Heaven Is for Real” -- which arrived in theaters last weekend to surpass all financial expectation by hauling in $22.5 million in its first three days – Wallace forged into cinematic territory he’s less commonly associated with despite having studied religion as an undergraduate at Duke University.

That is, the rapidly expanding marketplace for faith-based films.

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Based on the bestselling 2010 memoir by Nebraska evangelical pastor Todd Burpo, “Heaven Is for Real: A Little Boy's Astounding Story of His Trip to Heaven and Back,” the $12-million movie centers around Middle American churchgoers experiencing a decidedly modern crisis of faith.  

When 4-year old Colton Burpo awakens from a life-threatening operation, he tells his religious leader father (portrayed by Greg Kinnear) astonishing tales of having visited Jesus, hearing a chorus of angels and meeting deceased family members inside the pearly gates. In turn, Burpo is forced to grapple with his core spiritual beliefs -- he must re-find and communicate his commitment to his faith amid self-doubts, unwanted media attention and rising concerns from his congregation.

“People say, ‘This isn’t your kind of film,’” Wallace acknowledged. “But when I was in school, I paid for a year in seminary by teaching karate. I love karate! I don’t see a conflict between wrestling with issues of faith and self-defense. They’re both the same thing.”

Promoting “Heaven Is for Real” across the country in the lead-up to its Easter weekend release (as chronicled in a recent story about the marketing of faith-based and biblically inspired movies), the filmmaker was greeted like a hero at a number of evangelical and pentacostal mega-churches where he spoke to congregations of several thousand people, receiving enthusiastic applause.

“So often, if anything’s got ‘Christian’ as a modifier, it means watered down. The edges filed off,” said Wallace. “It’s never meant that for me.”

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According to DeVon Franklin, a producer of “Heaven Is for Real” and production executive at Columbia Pictures who has a sideline as a preacher with a dedicated national following, Wallace’s bona fides among churchgoers nationwide made him ideally suited to the project.  

“In the faith-based community, Randy is known for his faith,” Franklin said. “ ‘Braveheart’ is a huge title that resonates strongly in the faith-based community. And his speech at the National Prayer Breakfast was so phenomenal. It went viral. That really got him entrenched.”

“We knew he had a feeling for the material,” he continued. “We know he’s written epic movies. He was an obvious choice.”

Yet Wallace resists the idea that “Heaven Is for Real” should be classified as just a faith-based movie, pointing out the film wrestles with big questions about eternal life that have spanned history and religious dogma.

Moreover, he says that when he signed on to the project in 2012, Hollywood’s rush to appeal to a population of nearly 200 million Americans who self-identify as Christians and go to church at least once a month had yet to reach its current apogee.

“I think I’m a rebel by nature,” Wallace said. “When I signed on to do this, I had no idea that there would be ‘Noah’ or ‘Son of God.’ I didn’t think I was part of a trend. I love a good charge of the cavalry, a bunch of guys with broad swords running at each other at full speed, helicopters swooping in. That gets my blood pumping.”

“And I love the notion of this. In ‘Heaven Is for Real,’ the battle occurs in a man’s heart,” he said.

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chris.lee@latimes.com

Twitter: @__chrislee