Let's begin by agreeing that Sam Childers is doing the right thing in real life, protecting Sudanese children from horrifying treatment at the hands of armed rebels half a world away. Sam doesn't have to be there; he needs to, after a spiritual calling that interrupted a sinful life. Truth is already stranger than fiction.
Machine Gun Preacher is based on that truth but feels entirely made up. It's a movie wishing to be three movies at once — a mainstream faith-based testimonial, a bloodthirsty action flick and an intimate slice of sordid life. The thudding collision of these genres results in an enterprise begging to be taken seriously as an awards contender. Yet that pretension becomes more irritating with each passing minute, and there are 127 of those.
Marc Forster's film is a constant contradiction, with any possible inspiration muted by the fact that the guy doing the inspiring comes across as someone not worth admiring. The way the movie tells it, Sam is as obsessively insane as Capt. Ahab, ready and willing to destroy his family for the chance to be a white, violent savior among unfortunate, passive blacks. You can smell condescension even stronger than gunpowder.
Gerard Butler plays Sam, and much of the film's problems stem from his casting. Butler is an actor without subtlety or much range, shortcomings made more glaring by a screenplay jerking from one version of Sam to the next. He's fine as biker Sam, a ruthless sociopath capable of savagely stabbing a hitchhiker during a drug-induced frenzy.
Two scenes later he's saved Sam, going to church once, being baptized and emerging from holy water with a vision. The conversion is so abrupt that any uplift doesn't have time to settle in. Forster is too eager to get to vengeful Sam, who isn't much different from biker Sam except he's killing people in the name of God. And when people back in the United States won't fund his mission of mayhem, he's self-righteous Sam, an even more irrational incarnation.
Jason Keller's script is firmly in the corner of whichever Sam at the time. Whenever there's a chance for introspection, for Sam to question his motives and actions (plus give Butler another dimension to play) the movie shows doe-eyed refugee kids huddled in fear. How can you argue with that? If this portrayal is true then the real Sam deserves grudging credit but not a movie showcase.
Machine Gun Preacher comes alive only when Sam is pulling a trigger, which is most of the second hour. You can find the same thrill from watching a grindhouse descendant like The Expendables on cable TV. People are maimed or killed, things explode and the lone voice of non-violent reason — a rescue missionary who disdains Sam's methods — winds up saved by his anger.
Meanwhile back home, Sam's wife (Michelle Monaghan) and daughter (Madeline Carroll) beg him to consider the consequences of his obsession. He ignores them, along with a best friend (Michael Shannon) and former drug buddy who is relapsing. Each time Sam returns to Sudan he leaves a bit of audience sympathy behind. The movie ends as abruptly as it proceeds, with title cards proclaiming that nothing has changed. Sam's still mad, and children are still dying. The only happy ending is that Machine Gun Preacher is ending.
Steve Persall can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8365.