Machine Gun Preacher (review)

Gerard Butler in Machine Gun Preacher

Yes, it’s yet another story about white people helping poor black folk, but as tales of imperialistic cultural colonialism as spiritual growth go, this one is solid stuff, equally horrific in depicting the real-life evils it is fighting as it is uplifting and soothing of the viewer’s own guilty soul. (Not that one feel-good movie should absolve us of ignoring the bad stuff happening in the world, but sometimes it’s a relief to know that someone is doing something about it, no?) The real-life evils aren’t limited to brutal African civil wars, either. This docudrama doesn’t sugarcoat what an awful person Sam Childers (Gerard Butler: How to Train Your Dragon) is as his based-in-fact story opens: a violent junkie, he emotionally abuses his wife, Lynn (Michelle Monaghan: Source Code) and ignores his toddler daughter (played later as a teen by Madeline Carroll: Flipped). But a few of his own really terrible crimes finally shake him up, and a reluctant trip to his wife’s Pentecostal church quickly turns Jesus into his new addiction. But not — and here is my favorite thing about this movie — in an obnoxious way. Screenwriter Jason Keller and director Marc Forster (Quantum of Solace) have made a film about religious faith without presuming the viewer shares it, and as someone who doesn’t share that faith, I appreciate the lack of sanctimony. I also love that this is a story about a man who does something useful and positive with his faith (unlike the vast majority of public religious figures, who appear to believe that God wants them to be misogynist and homophobic panty-sniffers). For Sam, inspired by a visiting preacher, heads to Uganda and Sudan to build orphanages for and kick some ass on behalf of orphans of the civil war, including child soldiers. Now, it’s true that the warzone-action stuff — which is intense — sits somewhat oddly next to the huggy-feely stuff. But that’s sorta what you have to expect from a movie called Machine Gun Preacher. Butler is hugely engaging as a tough guy surprised to find he cares, and there’s a fantastic supporting performance by the always great Michael Shannon (Jonah Hex) as Sam’s junkie pal. But most importantly, the film’s heart and its boot are both in the right place, and it doesn’t pretend to have any easy answers, just a hard row that must be hoed. Jesus would approve, I suspect.

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