If you had to guess from the title, you’d think Machine Gun Preacher is a lousy grindhouse movie full of clichés and brutal violence. Instead, it’s a compelling, difficult, flawed,\ and yes, violent movie about the messiness of redemption. Though its as imperfect as its main character, Machine Gun Preacher is better than its preposterous title would suggest.
The film’s seemingly implausible storyline loosely follows the remarkable true story of Sam Childers, an ex-con and drug addict who found Jesus, started a church, built an orphanage and became a freedom fighter in East Africa. A wild-eyed Gerard Butler portrays Sam with plenty of bravado.
In an early scene, Sam gets out of prison only to find out his wife Lynn (Michelle Monaghan) has quit working as a stripper and started going to church. After a short while, the hardcore, drugged-out biker criminal has his life turn around thanks to a religious conversion and the support of his born-again wife, along with their daughter Paige (Ryann Campos) and his mother (Kathy Baker). Following his encounter with Jesus, the plot thickens because Childers begins to think about serving someone other than himself.
After starting a successful construction business and living the American dream, he starts a church and finds a problem that rattles him to the core: orphans in Sudan. After the orphanage he constructed overseas is attacked by the wicked militant group called the Lord’s Resistance Army, Sam realizes he must return to his violent roots to see that justice is served. He finds an unlikely friendship with an African freedom fighter named Deng (Souleymane Sy Savane) whose family was killed by the LRA. Deng tells Sam, “Our weapons are old, our boots full of holes. We’ve been forgotten by the whole world.”
Sam takes a new role leading armed raids to rescue kidnapped orphans in Sudan, which becomes an almost ungodly obsession. The ex-criminal becomes a something of a modern-day Moses, leading the oppressed children to safety; only he’s toting an AK-47.
During trips home, Sam preaches fervent, furious sermons as a call to action, which do little more than serve as framing points for his brooding in the scenes that follow. Sam’s juxtaposed worlds both seem to fall apart more than anything else, but ultimately, it’s a glimpse of a story of a man who’s truly toiling to make the world a better place with his personal brand of justice. If only the film did the Sam Childers story more justice.
Following the publicity of the “Kony 2012” campaign, the film could be deemed especially relevant upon its recent release to Blu-ray and DVD since the war criminal Kony is technically the unseen villain of the film. Hearing about children abducted to become child soldiers is horrible, seeing it portrayed front and center in a film is understandably worse. To its credit, Machine Gun Preacher drives home the inhumanity of the brutality created by the Lord’s Resistance Army militant group far better than any two-minute news broadcast piece probably could.
Case in point, in the opening scene a child in South Sudan is handed a club and told if he doesn’t kill his mother, the LRA rebels would kill him and his brother. The boy is then forced to become a child soldier. Overall, the scenes of horrific violence toward children are stirring and hard to watch. What’s harder is to deal with that it’s not merely fiction. Consequently, Sam’s commitment to the cause is admirable and rousing.
Machine Gun Preacher doesn’t portray Sam as a polished saint by any means. Thankfully, instead of showing faith as neat and safe, Sam’s Christianity is shown as the mysterious, dynamic, and complex ride that it is. Both pre and especially post-conversion, Sam is drinking, swearing, and angst-ridden and Butler does a solid job portraying his tormented, indomitable soul. “God don’t only call the good,” he says. “I reckon he calls us sinners, every now and then, too.”
The man firing so many bullets isn’t bulletproof. He sees failure and death more than he sees success. He has a crisis of faith, forgetting that while God seems absent when things are worst, he’s still there. He’s criticized for solving violence with violence and his family life suffers from his extended absences. Not unlike the TV movie 24: Redemption, the film does a good job of playing up the consequences of getting involved without making any solution seem remotely easy. It merely hints at asking whether the ends really justify the means when Sam tells a unconvinced doctor in East Africa, “Why don’t you fight the evil in this place your way, and let me fight it mine?” but Sam’s solution is too simplified since it mostly involves bullets.
And indeed, despite the fact that it’s based on a true account, there’s the expected, frustrating awkwardness seeing the white American man in the spotlight as a long-awaited savior to the people of color.
The film is Butler’s return to 300-esque machismo fare after he’d dabbling in making forgettable romantic comedies and he’s certainly better in this type of role. In Machine Gun Preacher, Butler gives his best performance to date playing such a dynamic, complicated character. His expressions alone are captivating as you realize he does his best acting with his eyes. They’re remarkably stern, pained, overwhelmed, intense, pleased, broken, tortured, and/or compassionate. Whatever the scene calls for.
While this missionary with the machinegun is fascinating, the people around him and the way his story’s handled aren’t. Though lacking in material, the rest of the cast also gives it their all.
In the Jason Keller script one-dimensional characters surround Sam when they could have been easily fleshed out into more equally compelling characters. The only other memorable character is Donnie, Sam’s heroin-addicted best friend who cares for his wife and daughter when he is away in Africa. Michael Shannon gives a moving performance as Sam’s confidante, but he’s often regulated to being a sounding board for Sam’s frustrations.
God moves in mysterious ways and Sam Childer’s unbelievable story is proof of that. What’s also mysterious is how his journey ended up being mishandled and muddled by esteemed director Marc Forester. Forester is a talented director who knows how to deliver powerful drama ( Monster’s Ball, The Kite Runner ) and memorable action (Quantum of Solace) but he doesn’t focus enough on one aspect or the other to fully succeed on either front here. Forester takes a page or two of his Bond playbook to provide meaningful action sequences, but here it’s not as simple as shooting bad guys when there are child soldiers involved.
Sam does seem to have needed East Africa as much as the region needed him, but at what cost? To its acknowledgment, the film does portray Sam’s flaws as an absent father/husband who fights for the orphanage more than he fights for his own family but it downplays the tribulations faced by everyone but the protagonist.
In all his escalating fury, you’ll likely have less empathy for Sam by the end of the film, when you should probably be caring about his plight most. Also, the conclusion is ambiguous in the least satisfying way and you’ll be left inspired yet unsatisfied.
Much credit should be given to Butler for making Machine Gun Preacher as good as it is, for he carries the film on his back and owns the role. In doing so, he lifts the overall quality of the film. The Lord giveth and the Lord taketh away, but if you give the movie a chance, know that the experience you’ll take away is the feeling that the jumbled movie had more potential. Ultimately, Machine Gun Preacher is like authentic faith and like good jazz, it doesn’t resolve.
The extras on the Blu-ray edition are especially slim, but the featurettes are enjoyable in their brief runtimes. There’s an interesting featurette about the creation and instrumentation of composer Thad Spencer’s score that includes amusing anecdotes about how original Gospel tunes were created to be played for the scenes inside Sam’s church. Instead of a standard “making-of” featurette, also you’re treated to a talk from Forester as he recalls meeting the real Sam Childers, discusses why he chose to take on this genre, and waxes poetic about why he felt this was an important, fascinating story that should be shared with the world.
It’s probably as insightful as a director’s commentary but less demanding of your time. Forester affirms the power we have within ourselves to change the world by changing yourself first. However, he doesn’t shy away from the scars that go along with such a redemptive change.