Gerard Butler as Sam Childers
Michelle Monaghan as Lynn Childers
Kathy Baker as Daisy
Michael Shannon as Donnie
Madeline Carroll as Paige #2
Souleymane Sy Savane as Deng
Peter Carey as Bill Wallace
Barbara Coven as Shannon Wallace
Inga R. Wilson as Mrs. Shields
Bruce Bennett as Pastor Relling
Brett Wagner as Ben Hobbs / Biker
Sean Patrick Leonard as Crackhead
Directed by Marc Forster
After getting out of prison, Sam Childers (Gerard Butler) resumes his road to destruction, doing drugs and committing crimes with his friend Donnie (Michael Shannon), but at the behest of his ex-stripper wife Lynn (Michelle Monaghan), he turns things around and embraces faith and the idea of helping others rather than hurting himself. One day, Sam sees something on television about the struggle by the people of Sudan, so he flies to Africa to help build shelters for those displaced from their homes. He ends up taking a more active role in fighting the rebels who are turning so many kids into orphans and soldiers at a young age, while building an orphanage.
The idea of telling the true story of a man who went against his very nature to do something good to help others, particularly the helpless children in Africa, is certainly a worthy venture, and one can certainly see why a filmmaker like Marc Forster ("Quantum of Solace") would want to tell said story. Even so, those going into "Machine Gun Preacher" not realizing Gerard Butler's Sam Childers is based on a real person may have a hard time taking it seriously.
Although we've seen plenty of movies set in Africa, this one takes a different approach in that it seems more influenced by vigilante action movies of the '80s or '90s than the Oscar fare of "Hotel Rwanda" or "The Last King of Scotland." When we meet Butler's Sam Childers, he's just getting out of jail and for the first half hour or so we see the "old Sam," taking drugs with his friend Donnie (Michael Shannon) and getting into clashes with his wife Lynn (Michelle Monaghan) who gave up stripping to take care of their daughter. A drug overdose convinces Sam he needs to step up and be a better husband and father, so he starts going to church and gets a job in construction. This leads him on a trip to Africa to help build shelters for the displaced, something he becomes passionate about the more time he spends there, though his absence creates conflict, as his wife and daughter get sick of playing second fiddle to his kids in Sudan.
That's Sam Childers' story in a nutshell, and maybe it would make for a fascinating film if not for the fact that Butler isn't particularly believable in the role, which is a pretty major hurdle for any movie to face. His performance in the dramatic sections just don't stand up to what we know his two co-stars are able to deliver, made more obvious by the strong dramatic scenes between Monaghan and Shannon when Sam's in Africa.
Even so, much of the drama that takes place in Pennsylvania seems forced and manipulative and because of that, the sections in Africa are infinitely more watchable more for the landscape than the story, because this is when the film frequently devolves into gunfights and explosions as Butler transforms himself into a modern-day Schwarzenegger. It creates a movie that's all over the place as it jumps between Sam getting involved in some firefight with the enemy, having another life-changing experience following the death of one of these kids, or preaching to his flock in Pennsylvania, trying to get money in order to improve the conditions at the orphanage.
In some ways, "Machine Gun Preacher" comes across like a movie about Africa geared more towards the conservative section of our country, who may be more open to the protagonist's right wing nature and his strong belief in religion and guns. The same aspects of the character may make it harder for any self-proclaimed liberal to get behind Sam's efforts in Africa, which is a shame since those efforts are certainly commendable regardless of how he approaches the problem.
Sam's story is definitely one worth telling, it's just not handled in a particularly effective way here, and considering how many strong films Forster has made, this one is surprisingly unimpressive and disappointing.
The Bottom Line:
"Machine Gun Preacher" tries its best to be an "important movie," one that gets you to care about what's happening in Africa, but as hard as it tries to manipulate your emotions, it fails to deliver an emotional impact, and that's mainly due to its schizophrenic nature. The results are a movie as disjointed as its title makes it sound.