LITTLE ROCK With a title Roger Corman might envy, Machine Gun Preacher is an odd mixture of blows-up-real-good action and uplifting bio-pic that adheres pretty closely to its true story source - Sam Childers’ memoir Another Man’s War.
Childers was a motorcycle gangster and drug abuser who served time in prison before converting to Christianity and undertaking missionary work in Africa. In the movie, he’s played quite effectively by Gerard Butler as a tightly wound and possibly psychotic man straining to sublimate his murderous impulses.
We meet him on the eve of his release from prison in Pennsylvania, drinking and drugging with his friend Donnie (the reliable Michael Shannon). After a particularly brutal Saturday night, Sam’s ex-stripper wife Lunn (Michelle Monaghan) drags him to church, where he breaks down, confesses his sins and is baptized.
Sam’s conversion is genuine, and he strives to be a righteous soldier of the Lord. And when he hears a visiting missionary describing the plight of orphans in war-torn Sudan, Sam feels called to help. He travels to Africa to build and run an orphanage.
Sam’s efforts are especially needed in that part of the world, for the Lord’s Resistance Army, a terrorist organization run by a charismatic Christian warlord named Joseph Kony (who claims to be God’s spokesman on Earth), routinely kidnaps children, impressing them into service as soldier or sex slaves. (The LRA’s stated goal is to turn Sudan into a Christian theocracy based on the Ten Commandments.)
After the terrorist group burns Sam’s orphanage to the ground, he is ready to give up. He calls home to tell Lynn he’s leaving - and she reminds him the orphans haven’t given up.
Steeled by this, Sam takes up the tools of his old life - like Clint Eastwood’s preacher in Pale Rider, he means to do some killing for the Lord.
It’s a film that almost works - for it almost suggests there’s something of Kony in Sam Childers. Butler is disturbingly convincing in the part - he’s a different, more alert actor here than he is in his would-be cuddly romantic comedy roles - and we catch genuine transformation and dangerous egoism gleaming in his eyes. It’s all too easy for him to decide that he’s exempt from all the rules - he’s the sort of character who can thrive only in a lawless environment like the Old West or modern Sudan.
(In the film, he becomes a commander in the Sudan People’s Liberation Army to fight against the LRA. In real life, the SPLA took pains to distance themselves from Childers’ violent campaign.)
In the end it devolves into something disappointingly ordinary, which, given the proven skills and sensibilities of director Marc Forster (his resume includes the remarkably subtle Monster’s Ball and Finding Neverland as well as the bombastic late model Bond film Quantum of Solace), is more than a little surprising.
Surely Forster was aiming for something more than this B-movie hybrid - this collection of blood-stirring set pieces. Butler’s Sam Childers is a fascinating animal, a self anointed savior who, in his vainglorious quest to save Africa’s children, gets to act out his most violent fantasies.
He doesn’t strike me as all that different from Joseph Kony; a better film would have traveled down that river, to that heart of darkness.
Machine Gun Preacher 82 Cast: Gerard Butler, Michelle Monaghan, Michael Shannon, Kathy Baker, Souleymane Sy Savane Director: Marc Forster Rating: R, for violent content including disturbing images, language, drug use and a sex scene Running time: 129 minutes
MovieStyle, Pages 36 on 02/10/2012
Print Headline: Machine Gun Preacher