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Religion and violence are far more synonymous than most people of faith would care to admit, and with Machine Gun Preacher — now out on DVD and Blu-ray — Gerard Butler’s criminal-turned-man-of-god certainly embraces that twisted mantra with a fervor. Despite adding a little too much “story-of-the-week” flavor, what allows this African-set, wartime drama/actioner to distinguish itself from your typical “one man against evil” archetype is Butler’s charisma and instances of character arc complexity that do not play out as you might expect.
Directed by Marc Forster (Quantum of Solace), Machine Gun Preacher chronicles select chapters from the life of Sam Childers (Butler) and his crusades against the genocide in Sudan by constructing an orphanage for the casualties of the conflict – the ones who are still alive. When we start out, Childers has just been released from prison and wastes no time returning to his biker bar, reuniting with his bad influence of a best friend (Michael Shannon) and setting up a tidy drug score. After an unforeseen complication (and an attempted murder) leaves the man shaken, he turns to his religious wife (Michelle Monaghan) for salvation.
What he finds while on a missionary outing to Sudan are the orphans, whose cause he initially addresses by allowing the majority of a wandering pack of young children to cram themselves in his tiny motel room. From there, it becomes an obsession – an addiction – as much as a cause. It is from this point where the fable deviates favorably (if not flawlessly) from its traditionally constructed roots, when Childers realizes simply constructing a modest orphanage (and the presence of a “white man”) is not enough to keep the rebels at bay.
Hence, the “machine gun preacher” is born, allying himself with revolutionists and carrying out attacks, raids and ambushes with the apparent end goal to protect “his” children. What we actually see, unequivocally, is his sociopathic side slipping through his soft veneer and his addiction swelling to an all-out overdose of righteousness. To make matters worse, he alienates his actual family back in the States, drives them close to financial ruin with his self-funding efforts and refuses to quit because of his own broken logic. This makes Childers a somewhat unlikable individual in that respect, but also makes him all the more intriguing.
I still fail to see Butler ever rising to the plane of an awards-garnering thespian, but he is consistently larger-than-life and rarely uninteresting to watch on screen. He infuses Childers with a bravado and intensity that is enough to compensate for unevenness in the screenplay. Also of note is that while the film is about a preacher and his godly crusade, “Machine Gun” ironically rarely preaches and lets the story and the horrible situation speak for itself. There are instances of manipulation when it comes to the orphans, but things are kept refreshingly low key.
Machine Gun Preacher tells an interesting story (if a familiar one thanks to an amplitude of entirely fictitious and melodramatic Hollywood fare available) about a man, who still to this day champions orphans in Africa. Crisp action, punctuations of graphic violence and solid performances throughout convey the proper message despite never really offering up of an enough impact to make anything click in the minds of the average individual. Essentially, this is documentary lite with just enough energy to warrant the big-screen treatment.