(Published in The New Sunday Express, dated 11 December, 2011, retrieved from http://expressbuzz.com/entertainment/reviews/machine-gun-preacher/342556.html)
Cast: Gerard Butler, Michelle Monaghan, Suleymane Sy Savane, Mduduzi Mabaso
Director: Marc Foster
Rating: 3 stars
It’s hard to make a movie based on both a man and an issue, especially when the man is alive and active. Sam Childers, a drug-abusing biker who found Jesus and moved to Africa to become the ‘Machine Gun Preacher’, continues to work in Sudan while his wife heads a modern church in America. What’s more, he features in the outtakes of Machine Gun Preacher, asking whether method matters when you’re rescuing children, and firing away at a metal target.
The reason a movie like this is problematic is that one is torn between making a biopic and a documentary feature. At times, it feels like a growing-up story, at others like a morality play. It can become an intense personal exploration, examining the psychological toll a difficult mission takes, striving to portray a character as human while simultaneously eulogising him.
This is further complicated by the fact that there are so many issues in here – drug abuse, spiritual rebirth, genocide, kidnap, child abuse, dictatorship, violence and international relations.
With an actor as capable as Gerard Butler is under a good director, and a supporting cast as talented as the filmmakers had at their disposal, the movie could have gone beyond the real story if it had simply been loosely based on it.
The movie has a powerful opening, as the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) of Sudan conducts a raid on a village. A man is killed, a terrified child is given a blunt weapon, and his mother is forced to kneel in front of him, with a blubbering child clinging on. There are no translations, but the terror on their faces tells the story.
But then, we’re taken to an American jail, where a tough guy steps out and gets some action with his wife Lynn (Michelle Monaghan) in the car, before heading to his trailer home, getting into a fight, going on an acid trip, robbing a man, killing another, and finding God.
And this is where the unnecessary parts of the film creep in. Childers is shown to be a hero, protecting his wife and child from a tornado with his body, and temporarily saving his friend from OD-ing. He is shown as the good father, reading aloud to his little girl and playing word games with her. Later, nearly as much time is spent on questioning his methods. A relief worker in Sudan says there are rumours that he is protected by magic, that bullets can’t harm him. She warns, “That’s what they used to say about Kony too.”
Which brings us to the biggest hole in the film – we don’t see Joseph Kony, and we don’t even feel him. We know most African dictatorships were established by good guys gone bad, but Kony remains an ephemeral non-presence. The Sudan People’s Liberation Army, and its enigmatic leader Dr. John Garang, are portrayed in a far better manner.
After being a Scottish Phantom and Scottish Spartan, Gerard Butler continues to struggle with the accent of a “Hillbilly from Pennsylvania.” But he looks and behaves like the real Sam Childers, and is easy on the eye, even when he’s screaming away about Jesus and what He wants.
You may laugh more than you expect in a movie that gets all the frills right. There are some beautiful shots, and what I liked most about the movie is that it allows the little things to talk – a bag with a smiley face, a foreign souvenir, grown-up soldiers sitting delightedly on a see-saw for the first time, a carefully-guarded photograph, a preference for football over baseball. The child actors are quite brilliant. One only wishes the movie had spent more time filling the gaps in logic caused by the jumps in time than documenting Childers’ quotable quotes.
Verdict: This was an important film to make, and an affecting one to watch. Sadly, it doesn’t realise its full potential.