With an exploitation-friendly title like Machine Gun Preacher you’d think this movie would be the soul brother of a bloody camp-fest like Hobo with a Shotgun. The name conjures up images of a leather-clad holy man, blowing away sinners by the truckload with his custom-made weapons: Temperance and Diligence.
So imagine the disappointment when Machine Gun Preacher actually turned out to be a mostly dull and alarmingly preachy glorified TV movie. It’s just plain old false advertising.
In this based-on-a-true-story biopic, Gerard Butler plays former armed robber/drug dealer/all-around bad boy Sam Childers, a lost man, living a narcotics-addled, ragey, gun-toting existence in Trailer Park Alley, Pennsylvania. After getting out of prison, he finds that his ex-stripper wife Lynn (Michelle Monaghan) has found God and after an incident wherein he almost kills a man in cold blood, Childers repents and follows suit. He successfully sweeps the drugs and alcohol out of his life and heads out on a mission trip to Uganda to help rebuild a war-torn village.
It’s there that Childers decides to visit Sudan and first confronts the appalling handiwork of the Lord’s Resistance Army, a guerrilla group notorious for recruiting male child soldiers at gunpoint and for the abduction of young girls into the sex trade (often after brutally killing their parents in front of them).
The grisly realities of these children’s lives inspire Childers to build a church at home where he preaches every week. Eventually, he forms the Angels of East Africa rescue organization and builds an orphanage near the Sudan/Uganda border, leading a noble band of Sudan People’s Liberation Army warriors to rescue as many homeless orphans and abductees as they can, rendering their own form of bloody justice on the LRA whenever it’s deemed necessary.
On the home front, his frequent absences and near obsession with his work cause problems with his wife and daughter (Madeline Carroll) but he soldiers on, angering government officials and driving away his parishioners as his religious rants become more and more explosive and fanatical, bordering on hysteria.
Gerard Butler gives it his all in playing out Childers’ vaguely plotted out metamorphosis (you can almost see visions of tiny Oscars dancing in his eyes) but he doesn’t quite have the chops to pull it off without chewing up the scenery and coming off as a one-dimensional anger machine. He’s like Rambo with a bible (only not as interesting as that sounds).
He’s certainly no match for his co-star Michael Shannon who makes his tiny role as Childers’ reluctantly reforming and perpetually troubled former partner-in-crime feel vital and real, tearing your heart out in every scene he inhabits.
While there’s no doubt that Childers’ story is inspiring, the movie haphazardly straddles that murky line that separates it from just recounting events — in which the church admittedly plays a big part — and proselytizing itself into scary Christian movie territory (you know those ones where Kirk Cameron is always battling the end of days?).
The script probably could have used one less fire and brimstone sermon in order to make room for the exploration of Sam’s motivation and metamorphosis in better detail. There’s a lot of ground to cover, and the film chooses to cut corners in the story development department by using lots of quick editing and throwing in heaps of dead children punctuated by copious gunfire to keep us distracted.
Director Marc Forster (Quantum of Solace, Finding Neverland) heads up a finesse-free, ham-fisted production that occasionally attempts to ask some interesting questions (can you fight evil without becoming evil in the process?) but never really moves beyond its good intentions. Let’s hope he fares better with his soon-to-wrap big screen adaptation of World War Z. At least with zombies, there’s no subtlety required.