When a Sudanese leader invites Sam Childers (Gerard Butler) to join him in attending peace talks, he firmly but politely declines, claiming that people sitting around in a room and talking about problems doesn’t actually accomplish anything. Sitting around in a theater and watching Machine Gun Preacher doesn’t solve anything either, but it fulfills a long-standing Hollywood tradition of forcing unbelievable-yet-true stories into the same blandly inspirational mold. After all, a documentary about the real, very much alive Childers recounting his experiences of taking up arms and saving children in Africa wouldn’t be nearly as exciting or moving as watching a bona fide movie star like Butler do it, right?
But I’m getting ahead of myself. At the start, we see Childers as he leaves prison for the umpteenth time to reunite with his wife, Lynn (Michelle Monaghan). She has some surprising news: she’s found Jesus and has decided to stop stripping to make ends meet. Sam isn’t keen on either idea and quickly falls into his old habits with Donnie (Michael Shannon), shooting up both heroin and drug dens in the name of a quick buck. After one particularly rough night, though, Sam gives this church thing a shot and soon finds himself in the Lord’s good graces.
Just as Lynn saved Sam, Sam proceeds to save Donnie before starting his own construction company, finding a new home for his family, building a new church for the community and then embarking on a mission to East Africa, where he can repair homes and build orphanages. However, the more he sees of regional atrocities, the more compelled he feels to join freedom fighters like Deng (Souleymane Sy Savane) in warding off intruders and rescuing children forced into their ranks.
Once Sam returns to Philly, seeking more resources with which to continue helping the villagers, some locals joke that he’s regarded as some sort of African Rambo. He takes offense at this label, and yet that feels like the movie’s own raison d’etre: to combine noble drama with righteous action. To be fair, the latter scenes mark an improvement over director Marc Forster’s recent Bond effort, Quantum of Solace, but the former material often feels like a regression for the filmmaker. While even Forster’s worst work has demonstrated a sense of mood and flair, Preacher tends to feel pat, episodic and obvious throughout.
It’s not as if Jason Keller’s screenplay does him any favors in that regard. Despite spanning perhaps a decade of Childers’ life, the events of the film hardly feel as such, demarcated solely by the arrival of an older actress playing his daughter. When an aid worker criticizes Sam’s brutish tactics, you can bet that he’ll be there to save her from harm when she could use it most, and when a mute, scarred orphan proves to be an unexpected companion, you bet that the young boy will end up cracking his unofficial vow of silence for an eye-rolling opportunity to share the sagest possible message of love with a grown man newly crippled by doubt.
The clichés fly like so many spent bullet casings, seemingly excused from being just that once the usual “true story” disclaimer goes by. Meanwhile, the aforementioned doubt, faced by Childers as his philanthropic efforts begin to take a toll on his home life, proves to be the most marginally interesting element of his story. Unfortunately, the suggestion that this changed man hasn’t really changed much – a junkie instead for a different kind of high, as prone to outbursts of now morally questionable violence as he had been before – is what fuels all of Butler’s shoutiest, hammiest moments. Whether dressing down a banker for not giving him another loan or chewing out his daughter for wanting a limo to take her to prom while other children starve, it’s Oskar Schindler’s “I could’ve saved one more!” speech cranked up to 11 every single time.
Until that tipping point, his performance is a serviceable one, though the gruff Scotsman still struggles mightily with pulling off a convincing American accent. He easily looks the part of rough-and-tumble biker, and he appears equally comfortable with wielding a rocket-propelled grenade launcher when the occasion calls for it. For all we know, the real Sam Childers would be too, but let’s face it – that just doesn’t look as cool on a poster.