Directed by: Marc Forster, Runtime: 130 minutes
Machine Gun Preacher probably isn't the film you think it's going to be, no matter if you're gauging it on the schlocky title or the synopsis. At first glance, it looks like we might be working with a purely faith-based story of a downtrodden biker thug reborn into a buttoned-up bible thumper and freedom fighter, relying solely on his reinvigorated belief in God as the impetus -- thus digging into forcefully uplifting tones and whatnot. The story of Sam Childers' struggles in Africa is far less cut-and-dry, though; faith plays a part in his drive, but it's more a device than a moral affront on the audience. His desire to help the children of Uganda goes beyond those means that led him to a place, with gun in hand, where he's a steady, gallant warrior for the helpless. Unfortunately, Marc Forster's filmmaking isn't as persuasive as the true-to-life tale itself, but the energy created by the motion in Childers' tale -- one of violence, rock-bottom turmoil, frustration, and ultimately strained determination -- creates enough magnetism as raw drama to make us want to learn more anyway.
Gerard Butler plays Childers, a drug-dealing motorcycle heavy recently let out of jail, who returns to his rhythm of dealing, using, and robbing after a few chats with his wife, Lynn (an always-fantastic Michelle Monaghan), about her new line of work. After an unfortunate life-changing event during one of his late-night sprees, Sam decides to leave that side of his life behind him and rekindle his relationship with the church. As time passes, and his life changes, he's given the opportunity to travel to Uganda on a construction/missionary trip. What he sees there changes his outlook on, well, just about everything: the violence wreaked by the Lord's Resistance Army leaves children without homes and constantly fighting for their safety, leading Childers into a battle that would fuel the rest of his life. And eventually, that battle does force him to pick up a gun or two again, as well as make a few decisions that cause him to question his faith, his loyalty to his family, and whether what he's doing is futile.
There are two points to Machine Gun Preacher: experience Sam's metamorphosis from a futureless brute to a driven faith-oriented family man with a broad-scoped purpose, as well as to experience the events that shape him into that man he becomes. Gerard Butler carries the weight of Childers' shift with punchy gusto, yet his performance isn't as emotionally involving as one pivoting on evolving beliefs and life outlook should be. He's loud and blunt in his shotgun-wielding, drug-injecting days, which Butler's scruffy sneers and coarse vocals nail down, allowing the calmness and vigor he expresses as he grows into a preacher and an Africa defender to evolve with his persona. Despite his dedication and the gravelly magnetism he brings to Childers, the moments where it matters -- when he realizes his life has flown off the rails, when he discovers a new form of adulation in the church, and when he snaps under the pressure in Africa -- his steady-handed delivery can't achieve the humanistic dramatic punch required to elevate the material, instead merely lugging the hefty material on his back.
No avoiding it: Machine Gun Preacher features the deaths of innocent children, often in violent ways, mixed with the components of belief in a higher power and how it offers newfound strength. So, we're working with a faith-based film that earns its R-rating, a tricky endeavor. Marc Forster knows how this could appear, though, and tailors the film towards a fairly restrained portrayal, in a way that doesn't preach or bludgeon with overwrought emotion. His provocation remains subtle at first, revealing a dramatic intimacy and intensity that shares bits of the same DNA as his work on Monster's Ball, maneuvering around the topic in a way that's aware of its proximity to the hammy and blunt-force side of things. This isn't religious propaganda; in fact, Childers' faith primarily exists as a storytelling device, one that opens opportunities and gives the man a foundation, and once he does get in front of his fellowship and spreads the word, he's talking to them without necessarily talking to us. That's a hefty compliment, which allows for earnest emotion to be found in small scenes after that, like where Childers plays soccer with the African orphans.
As the violence escalates and the disturbing conflict of Uganda's child soldiers comes into focus, however, the content unavoidably grows more persuasive, and Forster's atypically mundane, cliché direction -- coupled with erratic action scenes not unlike those of Quantum of Solace -- doesn't do justice to the captivating account of sacrifice that rests in the heart of Childers' story. Scenes involving piles of dead bodies, abandoned orphans, and a quiet boy in the corner with a dark secret might have all really happened, yet they're given a non-dynamic, purpose-driven demeanor here that depreciates their natural power. When Forster has something tangible in his grasp, whether it's on Africa's soil or when Sam deals with frustration in his stateside life, opportunities slip through his fingers to genuinely get the point across, instead allowing the truth behind the story to serve as an anchor for the scenes instead of focused filmmaking. Machine Gun Preacher makes you want to know more about Sam, but only because it's clear that there's more to the story than what's given amidst this strained topical docu-drama.
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