**1/2 (out of four)
After “The Bounty Hunter,” “Law Abiding Citizen,” “The Ugly Truth,” and “P.S. I Love You” (to name just a few), I anticipate a new Gerard Butler movie like a kick in the face. Fortunately, some stories just can't fail, no matter who's tasked with the role.
That’s the case with the appropriately difficult-to-watch “Machine Gun Preacher,” starring Butler as real-life, violent-drug-dealer-turned-violent-do-gooder Sam Childers, who has saved thousands of kids in Sudan by building an orphanage and taking on rebels with force. Butler isn’t up to the challenge; he can’t navigate Childers’ transition from a life of crime to a life serving Jesus, or the haunted horror of what he sees as African children step on mines and see their villages burned and slaughtered. The rest of the cast bears the load, particularly Michelle Monaghan as Sam’s ex-stripper wife Lynn and Michael Shannon as Sam’s junkie best friend. So it’s a shame director Marc Forster and writer Jason Keller don’t present a credible, complex depiction of how Sam bullied his way into his fearless activist/action hero role, or an examination of this faith-based, justice-by-any-means-necessary attitude. How Sam holds onto the wife and surprisingly juvenile teenage daughter (Madeline Carroll), despite totally ignoring them once he gets a taste of Africa, is anyone’s guess.
Of course, his new priorities arrive because once Sam starts helping he can’t stop—it’s as if he’s going to war—and the film doesn’t shy away from making Sam objectionable at times. This leather-clad bad boy, unable to collect all kids in danger into his truck, must accept that helping some is better than helping none. Whether or not we’re convinced about how a guy who at first struggles to speak in public finds his voice to become a preacher, the world is certainly happy that he did. Through real-world sorrow and ruthless, bullet-riddled determination, “Machine Gun Preacher” achieves a sense of stunned awe in spite of itself. The movie may be a blunt instrument, but the unrelenting Childers is proof that sometimes you have to choose between being subtle and just [bleeping] getting things done.
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