In a war zone, it's hard to tell the good guys from the bad guys -- no matter how noble someone's motives may be, as long as they're carrying a gun and shooting with the intent to kill, they've entered into a place where conventional notions of right and wrong have been set aside, and pretending you're doing the Lord's work when firing a grenade launcher at a moving target is almost invariably a sign that you're doing something bad. Thoughts like this come to mind often while watching Machine Gun Preacher, a movie based on the true story of Sam Childers, a man who left behind a life of crime to serve God, and while helping orphans in Sudan became a warrior who chose to meet violence with more violence. The film's portrait of him as a holy Rambo who wastes bad guys like an avenging angel while rescuing children ultimately doesn't work well as philosophy, theology, or cinema.
In Machine Gun Preacher, Gerard Butler plays Sam Childers, a rough-hewn biker who, upon being sprung from jail, tosses some F bombs at the guards, has sex with his wife Lynn (Michelle Monaghan), and promptly goes back to his old life of dealing drugs and pulling robberies. Sam's life is clearly a dead end, and after a brush with death, he attends church and is reborn as a Christian. Sam starts a construction business and rescues his old buddy Donnie (Michael Shannon) from his junkie pals. Eager to do more, Sam builds a church that will cater to folks like himself who don't feel comfortable in a more straight-laced congregation, and when the preacher he recruited fails to show up, he begins sharing his testimony behind the corrugated-steel pulpit. Sam joins a group of missionaries for a two-week trip to Uganda to help build houses for the needy, but as he learns more about the bloody conflict in nearby Sudan, he wants to see what's happening for himself, and learns about the Lord's Resistance Army, an especially vile militia group who forcibly recruit children into their ranks. Suitably appalled, Sam takes it upon himself to build an orphanage in Sudan where children can be safe from the LRA, and he forms an alliance with Deng (Souleymane Sy Savane), a soldier in the rival Sudanese People's Liberation Army. While the SPLA are on Sam's side and help protect the orphanage, his efforts are seen as a bitter affront by the LRA, and it isn't long before Sam has a price on his head and a reputation as "the White Preacher" who will help children at the expense of his own safety. As the LRA step up their war against the SPLA, Sam, who already knows his way around a firearm, takes up a rifle and becomes a fearsome soldier, willing and able to kill LRA fighters before they can hurt any more children. Meanwhile, back at home, Lynn, initially supportive of Sam's efforts, becomes resentful that he's neglecting his own family, particularly their teenage daughter Paige (Madeline Carroll), and without the support of his friend, Donnie sinks back into addiction; the pressures on Sam push him to the breaking point, as he verbally browbeats people at home for money and support and storms into battle in Sudan with a bloodthirsty relish.
It doesn't take long for Machine Gun Preacher to develop a serious identity crisis, one that's alluded to in the film's title. Sam Childers may try to leave his past as a vengeful badass behind, and through most of the movie he is portrayed as a heroic man with a good heart, but he's a hard guy to admire as he becomes more obsessed with his crusade to save the children of Sudan. As played by Gerard Butler, Sam isn't just trying to rescue kids in need -- anytime anyone takes his crusade less seriously than he does, he regards it as a personal affront that sends him into a eye-popping tirade, and when the victims of his scorn include his wife and child (who are treated more like props than actual full-blooded characters, as much as Michelle Monaghan and Madeline Carroll try to give them depth), it's desperately hard to feel for Sam, even before he picks up a gun and starts wasting bad guys. As played by Butler, Sam has two moods, placid but concerned and frothing with rage, and while the script by Jason Keller doesn't have much in the way of nuance, Butler's earnest but flat interpretation turns him into a monomaniacal sociopath whose motivations seem suspect even if his goal of saving Sudanese children is clearly admirable. And Sam's abandonment of his pal Donnie is nearly as callous as his neglect of his daughter; as played by Michael Shannon, Donnie is a man with a good soul but a feeble will, and he's tragically lost without Sam's guidance, as much a victim as any of the kids in Sudan. Marc Forster's direction is every bit as problematic as his star's performance; most of the time Machine Gun Preacher feels like a well-meaning Christian drama about a man trying to redeem himself and help others, but it takes sudden and clumsy detours into bloody violence, with the gory details lingered over with relish, and when Sam picks up his gun, he seems to be reverting into the bad guy he was before he found Christ rather than the hero Forster clearly wants us to see him as. Sometimes people do bad things for good reasons, and that can be the basis for a thoughtful and compelling movie, but in the case of Machine Gun Preacher, we spend a lot of time with a man who does both very good and very bad things for reasons that become less clear as the film progresses. By the time it comes to a close, Sam Childers seems to need some serious soul-searching and time with an analyst almost as badly as the Sudanese children who are a constant presence in the background need a place to stay and a decent meal.