5-Word 365 #315 – Machine Gun Preacher

Yes, I know this isn’t a documentary. I had company most of the day so I didn’t get the chance to see the flick I had selected, but this is based on a true story. That counts for something, right?

Machine Gun Preacher

God is his tank driver.

Sam Childers is a former drug addict biker who converted to Christianity and took it upon himself to save the children of the South Sudan war zone  building them an orphanage and leading armed raids against the Lord’s Resistance Army in order to rescue the child soldiers they have abducted from the region’s villages. This is his story.

Marc Forster’s follow-up to the financially successful but much-maligned Quantum of Solace sees his return to the world of the biopic, though it’s hard to imagine a subject further removed from J.M. Barrie than Sam Childers. Based on Childers’ own book Another Man’s War, this is an unflinching depiction of a troubled man who finds God, but remains just as troubled as he was before. He simply transfers his addiction from destructive (booze and heroin) to constructive (orphanages and rescue missions). Gerard Butler gives a powerful and fearless performance as Childers, but the movie is let down by its rigid focus.

By telling Sam’s story only, the other supporting characters end up as little more than one-dimensional buttresses. Sam’s wife Lynn and his best friend Donnie are the most hard-done-by. Michelle Monaghan and Michael Shannon do fine work, but the script simply has no room for them. Lynn is there only to first drag Sam along to the church she has joined while he was in prison, then to stay home and be the other side of encouraging phone calls while he is in Africa. Donnie gets off even worse, becoming the cliché of the friend who is saved from the needle only to find it again after a fight with Sam. Shannon deserves better, frankly. There’s no denying that Sam’s is an amazing story, but even a handful of scenes to explore what was happening back in Pennsylvania would have opened things up much more.

The power of Christ compels you, bitch.

The passage of time is represented by the rather fuzzy device of the size of Sam and Lynn’s daughter Paige. There are no captions to say what year we’re in from any one scene to the next, but I would guess the film takes place over about ten to twelve years, with all the actors looking the same at the end as they do at the beginning. It’s good to see Gerry Butler with a character he can really get his teeth into again, after a run of frankly awful romantic comedies. In his hands Childers is fully believable as a man who can give a rousing sermon in his own hand-built church, before loading up with a bazooka to go blow the shit out of the enemy. Actually, this might be the first picture I’ve seen where the lead character has a higher body count after his conversion than before.

“Hey man, you want to come to Africa with me. We can save some kids and shoot some bad guys.” “Nah, I’ll just stay here with your wife.” “Okay.”

Forster has already proven himself when it comes to the dramatic elements, but the action scenes are a different matter. On that front, Machine Gun Preacher is much more straightforward than his previous effort. The frequent but short skirmishes here – as with the rest of the film – are shot almost entirely from Sam’s point of view as he faces off with a variety of nameless and even faceless enemies. Based on truth it may be, but I couldn’t help wondering how a self-confessed untrained biker who likes guns managed to become such an accomplished and respected battle commander. That’s just one more seemingly glossed-over element of Childers’ story. Despite the fact that the film rattles through twelve years (or so) at a rate of knots, it feels a bit draggy and repetitive during the second hour. I would say Forster and playwright-turned-screenwriter Jason Keller might have been better served had they focused the film on a shorter period in Sam’s life instead of trying to squeeze so much into these two hours.

If nothing else, Machine Gun Preacher is a pretty decent advertisement for this particular brand of Christianity, and brings some deserved attention to Childers’ quest. Unfortunately as a movie it just doesn’t quite work.

Go ahead, punk. Make my day.

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