A disparate mix of grit, violence, religious awakening, and socio-political commentary, Marc Forster’s biopic “Machine Gun Preacher” asks the age-old question “Who would Jesus shoot?”. Based on the last decade or so in the life of ex-biker/ex-con Sam Childers (played here by Gerard Butler), it’s a message movie at conflict with itself.
The story opens with Childers being released from prison circa the late 1990s. Almost immediately he excoriates his wife for having quit her job as a stripper and finding religion and slides back into his routine of shooting heroin, robbing drug dealers, and messing up drifters. It’s only a matter of time before he bottoms out in grand style and seeks help in changing his ways, leading to a passionate conversion to Christianity.
He eventually learns of the plight of orphans and refugees in war-torn Sudan, where the so-called Lord’s Resistance Army commits atrocities so horrendous it can make one question the existence of God. Childers decides to use his construction skills to build an orphanage that quickly becomes a target of the LRA, who are known for pressing children into their ranks as soldiers. Childers reaction is to become a commander in the Sudan People’s Liberation Army, a holy-rolling Rambo trying to have it both ways.
What follows is a questionable form of humanitarianism, as Childers divides his time between preaching and scrounging for donations at home, and rescuing children from horrifically dire situations and gunning down bad guys in Africa. His drive and his intentions are admirable, until they threaten to dissolve his family and hurt those around him. Eventually a bounty is put on his head, making one wonder if hanging around an orphanage is really a wise thing to be doing.
Forster, screenwriter Jason Keller, and Butler do an admirable job in delving into Childers dark side — he’s fallen so low when the movie begins that he makes the cast of “Sons of Anarchy” look like a boys’ choir — as well as the depths of his passion, which borders on obsession. Here’s a guy so desperate to atone and do just one good thing with his life that he almost forsakes his wife and daughter to put his life on the line in a hell hole half a world away; a guy who’s fear that he’d killed a man led him to a religious conversion, who later shows no hesitation when pulling a trigger.
He’s born again, true, but he hasn’t changed, he’s just found a new outlet for his anger and aggression. The movie shies away from exploring this disconnect in depth, no doubt out of fear of losing audience sympathy for the subject. Unfortunately, the result is a message is too mixed to be effective.