If you go into Machine Gun Preacher expecting another Blood Diamond – a powerful, socially conscious action-adventure set against a backdrop of African Civil War – you’ll be disappointed. If you go into the film expecting an Africanised Blind Side, a feel-good tale where persistence against the odds leads to a happy ending for the disadvantaged, you’ll also be let down. You see, true story Machine Gun Preacher seems to be squatting somewhere between the two benchmarks, and with the exception of one or two moments, this very middling movie never really satisfies. In fact, it rarely provokes a response from the audience at all.
Based on real-life events, Machine Gun Preacher centres on Sam Childers (Gerard Butler), who begins the film as a low-life biker thug, harbouring immense anger against the world. Childers is foul-mouthed, hard-drinking and a heroin addict; not to mention a lousy husband and father. Wife Lynn (Michelle Monaghan) and daughter Paige (Madeline Carroll) still loves him though, so one day when he commits an act even he is horrified by, and pleads for help in turning his life around, his family directs him to their church.
And over time, and with many challenges, Childers’s life does improve to the point where he decides to “pay it forward” in some extreme ways – one of which is to build an orphanage for children left homeless and family-less by the conflict in Southern Sudan. Always cognisant of his past as a sinner, and being a hands-on kind of guy, Childers adopts the mindset that Christians should be wolves; not lambs. This results in him taking the fight to the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA), a vicious militia group who kidnap, abuse and force children to commit atrocities.
If you’re worried that South African-shot Machine Gun Preacher is going to be, well, preachy, you can breathe easy. Childers’s relationship with God is not clean-cut, and there is definitely no sense of easy salvation for characters to sermonise about. It’s a pity then that in other areas, Machine Gun Preacher is so simplistic and predictable. Perhaps events did play out as obviously in reality, but onscreen it reeks of Hollywood formula. So of course you get the shots of over-stocked American supermarkets and gluttonous parties while Childers begs for funds. Of course there’s a good militia and an evil one. Of course there’s the doctor who believes only a pacifist approach will produce results. And, of course, the Sudanese need a white American to come in and educate them about cleaning their rifles. *sigh*
One thing that IS unexpected though is just how much of Machine Gun Preacher actually takes place in the United States, where Childers’s commitment to his African cause begins to destroy his family, friendships and business.
Then again, perhaps the long patches of screen time devoted to US events isn’t surprising if you view Machine Gun Preacher less as an examination of relief work in the Sudan, and more as an examination of one man’s striving for purpose… punctuated every so often by a truly ridiculous moment where Butler’s “African Rambo” fires off an RPG.
Machine Gun Preacher is certainly interesting and all credit must go to Butler – who also produced the film – for being so convincing in the role of a man who constantly teeters on the brink of darkness, and often tumbles in. It’s just that you can’t escape the feeling that Machine Gun Preacher is pulling its punches. Sure it could be considered exploitative and sensationalist to constantly show children being tortured, shot and blown up, but the few scenes that do this in Machine Gun Preacher tend to be the most resonant. The film could have been more graphic, or, better still, it could have actually developed the African characters, so viewers care about their fate.
In the end then, although Machine Gun Preacher isn’t a badly made or badly acted film, it feels like something is missing. Perhaps the script was too tethered by real-life events; perhaps it was too sincerely committed to showing both Childers’s good and bad sides to satisfyingly explore the impact the Sudan War has had on local children. The end result: Machine Gun Preacher has no real heart to hook the viewer, and no gratifying resolution.
Last Updated: January 23, 2012