You may not fear God, but you best fear Sam Childers. Or at least I think that's the message of "Machine Gun Preacher," starring Gerard Butler and Gerard Butler (sorry, but it is just that emphatically his movie) as a locked-and-loaded, Bible-toting bad boy determined to take down Satan in Sudan.
If anything, watching the film is like attending an old-style Southern tent revival — you want to believe in the fight against all that fire and brimstone. Heck, you want to join the righteous brigade. But when the lights go up and the fever dies down, it feels more like you've witnessed a show than a real showdown with the devil.
Still, it's somewhat soul-quenching to get all riled up for a good cause once in a while. It's also a reminder that even in the very capable hands of director Marc Forster ("Monster's Ball," "Stranger Than Fiction"), yet another morality tale with white man as savior of African cause is tough to pull off in this day and age even when it's based on a true story, as this is.
Butler, looking about as buff as he was in "300," slips easily into the skin of the very real, larger-than-life Sam Childers, a guy who comes with one of the great redemption stories going. Sam, once mired in a biker-drug-addicted-prison life, comes out on the other side to find religion. He gets into the construction trade and builds his own church (like a certain biblical figure he'll try, but fail, to model). On a brief mission trip to Africa, he finds his calling: helping Sudanese children who've been orphaned or conscripted by the region's brutal rebel force.
In time, though, the preacher finds his Bible and his hammer aren't enough. To make a difference against the Lord's Resistance Army in Sudan, it takes an assist from a machine gun to drive home the point. At home, back in Pennsylvania, where about half of the movie takes place, Sam proves to be locked and loaded too, his emotions nearly as lethal at times as his gun. It's clear that the aching need he sees in Africa and the affluent complacency he finds in the U.S. trigger his frustration, but as to what shaped him into such an angry man in the first place, we're never really given a clue.
Having such a complicated man as a central character is a blessing and a curse for the filmmakers, and the movie struggles because of this. There's a lot of setup that screenwriter Jason Keller needs to dispense with quickly (this is his first produced screenplay to hit theaters, though there are a fistful more on the way). It makes for a bumpy entry for most of the rest of the film's very good, but under-utilized cast — Michelle Monaghan ("Source Code") as Lynn, Childers' long-suffering wife; Kathy Baker ("Cider House Rules," TV's "Picket Fences") as Daisy, his even longer-suffering mother; and Michael Shannon ("Revolutionary Road") as Donnie, his addiction-plagued longtime friend.
The movie opens with Sam leaving prison, Lynn waiting outside to pick him up. Despite some energetic welcome-back sex in the front seat of their rattletrap, there is trouble in paradise. While Sam's been in lockup, Lynn's been born again and has given up stripping, which apparently provided the financial support for the family, including daughter Paige (Madeline Carroll). Even if you buy the fact that in letters, phone calls and prison visits, Lynn never breathed a word of her major lifestyle changes to Sam (despite their electric connection), it's a lot to stuff into a few scenes, and it ends up a bit of a mess.
After Forster gets us past that and Sam starts his trips to Africa, the film settles down into the action-thriller in a war-torn country that is really destined to be. Even the look is richer, from dense undergrowth where dark deeds happen to wide, unsheltered vistas that turn the orphanage Sam builds into an easy target for the LRA.
With cinematographer Roberto Schaefer (who's worked on all of Forster's films), the filmmaker gives everything to the Africa staging. Rural Pennsylvania, home base for Lynn, Paige, Daisy and Donnie, pales by comparison — both visually and in its story. There simply isn't enough time to do justice to both and so, like Sam, Forster chooses Sudan. A similar divide infected the director's 2007 film, "The Kite Runner," powerful in rendering the Afghan childhood of two boys, less so when examining the imprint it left on their adult lives.
The Sudan side of the story allows Butler to flex his action muscles as Sam finds an outlet for the rage that always seems just under the surface even when he's trying for godly. It also puts the excellent Souleymane Sy Savane center stage. If you haven't seen Sy Savane in the indie "Goodbye Solo," now is the time to catch up, and if the Hollywood gods are with us, he will soon be around for us to watch a lot more often.
Meanwhile, Sam as a character is a good fit for Butler, always a dominating physical presence on screen à la "300," a trait that tends to overwhelm and undermine his romantic comedy outings, as was the case in "The Bounty Hunter" and "The Ugly Truth." Sam's mission lets the actor combine the machismo with the emotion that you wondered if Butler could channel as well. He can. Butler and Sy Savane, an anti-LRA fighter who befriends Sam, make a good pair too — one explosive, the other introspective, those sensibilities balancing each other to give the film its most moving relationship.
For Forster, "Machine Gun Preacher" continues the director's exploration of the central theme found in virtually all of his work — the human spirit struggling to survive. He gives this uplifting saga all of his passion. It could have used a good deal more of his discipline as well.