Machine Gun Preacher

24 Oct

Title: Machine Gun Preacher
Year: 
2011
Director: 
Marc Forster
Writer: Jason Keller
Starring: 
Gerard Butler, Michelle Monaghan, Michael Shannon
MPAA Rating: 
R, violent content including disturbing images, language, some drug use and a scene of sexuality
Runtime: 
129 min
Major Awards: –

IMDb Rating: 
5.8
Rotten Tomatoes: 
25%

I remember that for a while there was some Oscar buzz surrounding Gerard Butler’s performance in Machine Gun Preacher, people were saying it looked like something that might be a good fit for him and finally get him the acting credibility he has been looking for, not to mention that he was being directed by Marc Forster, who directed Halle Berry to her Oscar for Monster’s Ball and got Johnny Depp a nomination for his work in Finding Neverland. So I was quite intrigued to watch how this film turned out to be, and quite bummed out to see that even though the potential was certainly there, the movie is just too messy and unsure to be something good, and even though the character is certainly one that could have been explored through all of his very complex layers, Mr. Butler and the movie end up squandering any opportunity for that by taking a very emotionally-lacking approach to their portrayal of him.

The film tells the story of Sam Childers, a former gang biker, an ex-con who led a lifestyle full of drugs and alcohol, but he found religion and was born again and since the late nineties has dedicated his whole life to helping out children in the war-torn areas of the Sudan. Like I said, there is stuff here that could seriously work, a story about an extra drug dealer from Pennsylvania who was part of a motorcycle gang who then converted himself over to religion and started helping orphans in one of the most devastated areas of the world. And, because he’s a man of action, he doesn’t just save the kids, but he also fights against those who get kids to live in those horrible conditions in the first place, namely the Lord’s Resistance Army, a militia that’s been wrecking havoc all over the area, burning villages, making the boys soldiers and the girls sex slaves. This is the story Hollywood dreams about, one that marries sentimental, uplifting stuff with great violence, and yet Machine Gun Preacher is a film that never figures out how to combine the two in a way that works.

And maybe that’s just what did this film in, the fact that the real story it was trying to tell was somehow just too good to be true, encompassing a lot of ethical and political situations, with a lead character that had two absolutely different sides to him, maybe it was just too much to be able to handle in this one film. I will admit, however, that the first act of this film actually worked wonders for me, and had me thinking this would really be something quite good, and maybe that’s because it opens in Pennsylvania and introduces us to Childers as he first was, with his friend Donnie by his side (played by the awesome Michael Shannon), shooting heroin, drinking and robbing people, and really making it a hard time for his wife Lynn, who’s played by the lovely Michelle Monaghan, and their daughter. That part worked for me because Mr. Forster is a director who, as he proved with Monster’s Ball, can handle really well that gritty kind of reality, and he takes it head on, until one day, just released from a stint in prison and having engaged in a night of his usual despicable excesses, Sam goes with Lynn and his mom to church and finds God.

From then Sam becomes this man with a purpose, he feels he’s meant to go to Africa to help out as he can, and he does, deciding to build an orphanage in the middle of a war zone to aid the huge amounts of suffering he’s been a witness of. And once we’re settled in Africa we’re set to deal with the meaning of the film’s title, if a man of God can also be a man capable of exacting a huge amount of violence, as we see Sam, now a changed man, having to go back and take something from his violent past in order to go to combat against the Lord’s Resistance Army. And I didn’t quite like that part of the film, as we get Sam battling with the fact that his supposed purpose is pulling him away from his family and having him commit all of these horrible things, and that whole moral ambiguity didn’t really do it for me. And it didn’t do it for me because I couldn’t connect to Sam to that level, I didn’t care about what it all meant for him, maybe because even though he’s born again and certainly seems to have done something of meaning in his life for a change, it didn’t really seem as though he had really changed all that much deep inside of him.

So that’s why I won’t really be recommending Machine Gun Preacher, because I just didn’t know what it was trying to say. This is supposed to be a man that made the sacrifice of leaving his family to go on a spiritual sort of mission, but more often than not it seems that the guy is just driven by his desire to go shoot some people, though, it must be said, kudos have to given to Mr. Butler because he really does his best at trying to really get us to sympathize with Childers here, even if he fails at getting us to connect or even understand the inner conflicts of the man. But still, I think that even though its pieces are quite effective, once you sum it all up you have a film that doesn’t really know what it was trying to say or where it was trying to go. And it’s a real pity considering how amazing the real-life material this one was working with was, and how it got squandered to be little more than a few action-movie conventions set alongside a couple of sentimental clichés to try and get you inspired.

Grade: C+

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