Machine Gun Preacher (2011)

September 23, 2011 § Leave a comment

Gerard Butler as missionary Sam Childers in "Machine Gun Preacher"

Written by Jason Keller

Directed by Marc Forster

Starring Gerard Butler, Michelle Monaghan and Michael Shannon

Machine Gun Preacher is quite an epic title for quite an epic movie. It manages to spell out the crux of the story in big bold letters without giving away what you’re going to see going into the film, because there’s nothing else quite like it. That’s not to say Preacher is a perfect film (far from it) but its heart, like its real life hero, is in the right place and though its tactics (ham fisted dialogue and heart string highway robbery) might sometimes come off as a little cheap, also like true life hero, the film’s less than honorable style is nonetheless effective in achieving its goal.

Sam Childers is a biker with a horrible past. Hardcore drug addiction, rampant acts of violence and robbery, including a nice pile of bodies in his wake, but he one day he finds God and gives all that up. The next day he finds the plight of the Sudanese people in the form of a guest speaker at his church, looking for handouts. Before we know it, Sam is in the Sudan, building new structures for local villages. While other Christian missionaries and volunteers go North to the major cities looking for parties during their weekends off, Sam goes south with soldiers, to bear witness to refugee tent camps and rebel army horrors, ranging from piles of dead bodies to a child who has his legs blown off by a mine right in front of Sam.

This changes Sam completely, gives him a purpose in life. He returns home, builds his own church, designed to accommodate wayward souls like himself, starts his own construction company, saves some money and returns back to Sudan to build an orphanage.

What follows afterwards is a series of very similar sequences of Sam killing rebels and collecting dozens of child soldiers to save and protect them, coming home to a strained marriage and unresponsive rich people who’s money he needs to fund his missions in Sudan. Sam goes from being a good Christian to being something else entirely beyond religion. He’s a one man army, a rebel General on a mission to save the children and kill anybody who gets in his way. He gives up everything for his cause, nearly giving up his sanity as well in the process.

What writer Jason Keller, director Marc Forster and star and executive producer Gerard Butler have crafted here is a finely tuned b-action movie coupled with an art house international message film. Neither side of the production is top notch in regards to subtlety- the early scenes in the film are mind-numbingly self-conscious, trying to hammer home an entire lifetime of bad behavior on Sam’s part in a few short scenes in order to get him Saved by God and soul searching in Africa by the 25 minute mark.

After that, however, the film finds itself and presents a reasonably engaging series of sequences that offer up plenty of bravura acting from Gerard Butler, who is magnificent here, given the genre and gives Michelle Monaghan a fun tough chick performance that won’t garner Awards favor but is a respectable notch on her career’s belt. Michael Shannon shows up as Butler’s partner in crime and fellow lost soul whom Sam Childers tries to save. Shannon once again steals the scenes he is in, bringing a quiet intensity while offering some wry comedic twang to his delivery to keep his character human and likeable.

This is Gerard Butler’s film all the way, however. He dominates the film, appearing in nearly every scene and showing a fairly believable transformation from criminal to modern day saint- with a machine gun. Butler has an ability to emote quite intensely with his facial expressions, going from happy to pissed off to sad without much effort. There’s a depth to this performance that will be overlooked come awards time because the script for the film is quite heavy handed, moralistic and wants a little too badly to be important.
This film was certainly made for entertainment first, but there’s clearly a message here and a purpose behind the film. The film makers want the message of Sam Childers to be heard, aside from the fact that his story is quite extraordinary and larger than life.

This is a good film but Forster is not a very subtle director. Go back and watch Monster’s Ball or Quantum of Solace. With heavy handed material he has a penchant for beating his audience over the head with his theme or the overarching style of the piece until you’re going in circles from the unrelenting nature of his storytelling. The bleak repression of Monster’s Ball, the balls-to-the-wall emotionally charged violence of Quantum of Solace or the endless nature of Sam Childer’s efforts in Machine Gun Preacher. He’s showing a more and more deft control of his action scenes in each progressive film, portraying chaotic gun battles in more understandable ways, but he could take his acting direction down a notch, perhaps reigning in his actors’ scenery chewing.

Sam Childers is a very interesting man and I’m glad he turned his life around in such a profound and unusual manner. Gerard Butler showed some impressive range in this while sticking closely to the genre- historic action- that launched his career in the first place and Machine Gun Preacher is the kind of pulpy message film the world hasn’t been waiting for, but deserves.

Imagine the goal Steven Segal set out to achieve with On Deadly Ground, his environmentalist movie about oil drilling that included lots of bad guys being shot or round house kicked to death, then class it up a little bit with better acting, better direction and better writing and Machine Gun Preacher is what you get. Nothing wrong with that, but even message films can have too much gouda for their own good.

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