Machine Gun Preacher * * * *
Director: Marc Foster.
Screenplay: Jason Keller.
Starring: Gerard Butler, Michael Shannon, Michelle Monaghan, Souleymane Sy Savane, Kathy Baker, Madeline Carroll, Grant Krause, Reavis Graham, Peter Carey.
Marc Foster is quite a versatile director that seems to be able to turn his hand at many different genres. His fantastical “Finding Neverland” and comedic “Stranger than Paradise” are a far distance from say, his gritty debut “Monster’s Ball” or even his foray into Bond territory with “Quantum Of Solice“. With this movie, he has changed direction again and it’s no less accomplished than his previous film’s.
Sam Childers (Gerard Butler) is a drug using, violent biker who has just been released from prison. Upon his release he is soon back to his old wicked ways but having nearly murdered a man in defence of his best friend Donnie (Michael Shannon), he decides to turn his attention to God and find redemption. It’s at this point, that his spiritual journey begins and he finds himself taking up arms to liberate Sudanese refugee children from the LRA – the local militia, known as the Lord’s Resistance Army.
The very premise of this film seems like it’s has been concocted in some executive Hollywood office. I can just imagine it being pitched and how ridiculous it might have sounded. However, this is actually based on a true-story and the real Sam Childers is still, to this day, fighting for the freedom of African Children. That being said, I had never heard of Childers before or the ongoing struggle he is directly involved in and as a result I was left with the unfortunate title of this film and it’s slightly off-putting poster as my only information. After a few mindless action movies under his belt, you’d be forgiven for mistaking this recent Gerard Butler film as being in a similar vein. After all, the poster depicts him brandishing a rifle with the obligatory cowering child, hiding by his side. This very imagery and the more than dubious title completely misleads. It’s actually quite far from that type of film and more of a human and political drama. Thankfully, I still gave this a chance and left it feeling quite satisfied indeed. This is thanks in large to a charismatic and very powerful performance from it’s leading man. There is a real intensity to Butler’s delivery and it’s credit to the filmmakers that the flawed and distasteful behaviour of Childers is not ignored. He wasn’t someone that you’d like to cross paths with, yet Butler plays him with just enough edge and compassion – never fully losing your support or feelings of isolation from him. His transformation from violent misogynist to redeemed man of God and ultimately, saviour and mercenary is believable, if a little unexplained. Yes, there are flaws in the character development but it’s proof that given the right role, Butler can certainly deliver the goods. It’s his committed and passionate performance that forgives some big leaps in character progression. Ultimately, this fault is in the screenplay as the supporting characters also suffer; again, they are not bad performances but their roles are very underwritten. Michelle Monaghan is good but distant and this could be said even more for the very underrated Kathy Baker, who has absolutely nothing to do as Childers’ long suffering mother but the biggest waste of talent comes in the shape of Michael Shannon. With an Oscar nomination behind him for “Revolutionary Road” and a superb leading role in “Take Shelter“, this man should have been utilised more wisely. He still manages a presence but really, him and the aforementioned actresses melt into the background.
Slight over-length may also be an issue here but trying to condense anyone’s life story without causing some major bum-numbing amongst viewers can’t be an easy task.
This is a film primarily about one man – Sam Childers – and thankfully, the actor chosen to play him is more than up to the task. Despite some flaws, this is still an admirable and thoroughly involving biopic.