As any sporting coach will tell you, it is not the kid who futilely tries his hardest that aggravates him the most. No, that honor – or lack, thereof – falls to the child who has the potential to go far, but lacks the desire to give his all to get there. Exhibit A: Gerard Butler, an incredibly charismatic, rugged actor who had fallen into the trend of playing horribly-received, gimmicky, oft-misogynistic male leads in romantic comedies. If nothing else, seeing him try to break out of that mold is indeed a welcome sight.
Based off a true story that further proves reality stranger than fiction, Machine Gun Preacher portrays Butler as an ex-convict, drug-using biker gang member named Sam Childers, who finds Christ and attempts to turn his life and family around through building a career in construction. Soon after, he builds a fellowship church for junkies and other tormented-past “sinners”, while also feeling moved to establish an orphanage for Sudanese children. Watching Butler slowly morph into a “white preacher” of sorts on screen, I am inclined to agree with the sentiment that he’s never been better. Bouncing in persona from selfish scumbag to world-weary idealist to intense messenger of hope, he displays a consistent charisma that explains his sustained popularity and bodes well for his future. However, this film has me torn for different reasons, which I will explain.
To be fair, his efforts are helped by a solid supporting cast, with Michelle Monaghan and Michael Shannon providing grounding at home, and Souleymane Sy Savane serving as his seasoned companion Deng in the worst moments in Africa. And I do appreciate the way this story is directed by Marc Forster (of Quantum of Solace fame), for he does not pull any punches in showing how brutal and heinous the effects of the Lord’s Resistance Army really are – if you don’t shed some tears, see a doctor for a lack of empathy. Put bluntly, the elements are right…but the delivery is very wrong.
The screenplay spends the first 30 minutes making Butler near-unlikable in his actions, then making him almost instantly into a hard-core near-saint (the symbolism is thick enough to be cut with a knife). Normally, this wouldn’t be such a bad thing, but as a result, the film doesn’t seem to know what its central conflict should be. If I didn’t know better, it almost seems like the central conflicts of this man’s story (e.g. losing touch with family, inner rage) were glossed over as often as possible for the sake of solely focusing on his noble acts – an act that screams “idol worship” and makes the plot emotionally distant. Shoehorning an out-of-nowhere conflict in the final 15 minutes does not help matters. Nevertheless, in spite of its shoddy execution, its aim was in the right place. So following Sam Childers’s cue, I will try to focus on the best it has to offer – its message of redemption through charity.