Realizing that it takes a village, Machine Gun Preacher gives blood-soaked missionary work a bad name. It comes off like a morally unreliable story in which Gerard Butler saves Africa from itself. “Some kind of African Rambo” is how he’s described. The events of the movie may be a little bit true, or a lot, but hardly any of it plays that way.
Here’s how its subject—the former drug dealer and criminal hard-case Sam Childers—positions himself in his 2009 memoir, Another Man’s War (Thomas Nelson, $26). Childers, as Childers tells us, was a lost man, living a drug-addled, rage-fueled, sawed-off-shotgun life in Central City, Pa. Then he found God in 1992, swept the drugs and alcohol out of his life and, as part of a mission trip to Uganda, helped rebuild a war-torn village.
In Sudan, which he first visited in 1998, Childers confronted the grisly handiwork of the Lord’s Resistance Army, a guerrilla faction notorious for its gunpoint recruitment of male child soldiers and its abduction of young females into the sex trade. Now the founder of the Angels of East Africa rescue organization, Childers built an orphanage near the Sudan/Uganda border and, in his own account and the movie’s, led a noble band of Sudan People’s Liberation Army warriors to rescue as many abductees as they could, killing when killing was necessary.
The problem with Machine Gun Preacher begins and ends with the film itself, directed by Marc Forster with the same strained melodrama and synthetic emotion he brought to the screen version of The Kite Runner. (He’s made a good film or two, too, including Finding Neverland and Stranger Than Fiction.)
As Childers, Butler is nothing but a one-dimensional rage machine. His family stays firmly in the background, even when they shouldn’t be in dramatic terms. Michelle Monaghan does what she can as his ex-stripper wife, stuck with platitudes such as, “God gave you a purpose, Sam Childers.” Kathy Baker is wasted as Childers’ near-mute, rock-of-Gibraltar mother-in-law.
The only two who register with some welcome complexity are Madeline Carroll, who plays the Childers’ daughter as a teenager, and Michael Shannon as Childers’ friend, fellow biker and fellow user. Their performances feel vital and true. But Machine Gun Preacher, which really can’t wait to get to the ass-whipping part of this inspirational story, lacks any real sense of how Childers underwent his staggering transformation of character. Jason Keller’s script believes in the man and in the children he no doubt rescued from harm or death. But belief isn’t enough, and if the images of the film take us straight back to Sylvester Stallone in the jungle, then it’s too late for honesty.