Machine Gun Preacher. It sounded like a schlocky action, drive-in movie from the 1970s that Quentin Tarantino would have loved. But no, it's actually a true story based on the life of Sam Childers, a drug-dealing biker turned obsessed missionary. The end result is a mixed bag, but there are certainly positives to take away.
Fresh out of jail, Sam Childers (Gerard Butler) returns to the exact things that put him in jail -- drugs, robbery, assault -- and quickly sees the error in his ways when he almost kills a man. Seeking help, some sort of redemption for all the bad he's done, Sam joins a church with his wife, Lynn (Michelle Monaghan), and tries to turn over a new leaf. He starts over, building a construction company from the ground up, starting a church for individuals like himself, but most importantly, he hears about the atrocities being committed in the Sudan and Uganda. Sam wants to do something to help the children living daily on the brink of death, but walking into a revolution, nothing will be simple.
This is an interesting mix of a movie, for good and bad reasons. Based on Childers' life, it has an authentic feel to it, and Butler does a fine job with the part (more on that later). But at the same time, it can't quite figure out what to say or do. At 127 minutes, it's both too short and too long. Focus on Sam's home life with his wife and daughter (Madeline Carroll) is necessary to show Sam's inner struggles and demons, but those scenes vary from dull to repetitive. Where the movie is at its strongest is when Sam travels to Sudan on multiple occasions to build an orphanage for children left on their own because of the revolution. It's just too bad more focus couldn't have been put there.
When the focus is on the fighting between the LRA and the freedom fighters, 'Preacher' is moving along at its best. There are moments of emotional perfection and sheer horror as Sam sees the atrocities being committed. In a startling opening sequence, we see a LRA attack on a peaceful village, a boy, William (Junior Magale), forced to kill his mother because the LRA demands a death. As Sam sees these horrors, he comes completely undone when he sees a boy killed by a land mine. Later ventures have him making choices that will end in someone's death, a decision that obviously weights heavy on his head. Butler's scenes later with Magale's William are about as perfect as you can. When the movie works, it really works.
Also a producer on the film, this was clearly an important role to Gerard Butler, and he does a great job portraying Sam Childers. At times since the success of 300, Butler seems to have trouble picking the right roles, but this is an ideally suited one for him. Early on, Sam is a despicable person -- and an easy one to hate -- but he needs that low point to help turn things around. Butler is a live wire here, emotionally charged, driven and frustrated that he can't do more. All he wants is for others to see the brutal atrocities being committed and want to help, but even that's too much sometimes. Saving the orphaned children becomes an obsession with him to the point he blocks out his family and friends. A very good performance from Butler. Monaghan is good as Lynn, Michael Shannon is underused as Sam's similarly troubled friend, Donnie, with Souleymane Sy Savane a scene-stealer as Deng, a freedom fighter who comes to be Sam's friend and partner in fighting.
Because I felt a little misled, I'm going to point this out. Hearing the title 'Machine Gun Preacher,' I was expecting a slightly different movie. This is not an action blockbuster. While the action scenes are exciting and well-made, brutally efficient in their quickness, this is a personal story about Sam and what causes the violence. A lot of time -- too much for me -- is spent on the religious aspect, Sam's missionary work at home, and at times heavy-handed messages about God and religion. It never goes too far (but it gets close at times) so be forewarned going in. A good movie that could have been better, but one that's still worth a watch.
Machine Gun Preacher <---trailer (2011): ** 1/2 /****