Director: Marc Forster
Runtime: 123 minutes
If one would only view the first 15 minutes of Machine Gun Preacher, they would probably figure they’re about to endure a sappy Lifetime movie; for good reason, too. The opening scenes of director Marc Forster‘s latest are heavy-handed and forced. However, after a thud of an introduction, the audience gets treated with something much more engaging and humanistic.
When we’re introduced to Sam Childers (Gerard Butler), he’s portrayed as the typical bad boy: aggressive, obnoxious and any other loose cannon cliche you can think of. After getting out of jail and having a night full of terrible crimes — acts he’s probably committed before — he decides to turn towards God, like his former-stripper wife did.
And like a cheesy soap opera, he finds Jesus! That’s how the off-putting intro begins, but then Forster and screenwriter Jason Keller begin to work towards more thought-provoking areas. Childers, even after becoming a preacher and starting to help some of the children of Central Africa, is no perfect hero. The further he gets involved in his crusade, the less he stays connected with the family that once saved his life. When he’s out there in Central Africa, he finds importance and meaning. When he’s back home, there’s a feeling of claustrophobia and disgust.
Forster and Keller don’t sugarcoat their anti-hero. Sam Childers is a product of violence and nihilism, and for most of the film, it remains a part of him. At times he expects unrealistic actions from people and treats those closest to him as if they’re meaningless. To great surprise, Butler handles those dramatic moments impressively.
The eclectic Forster is capable of getting excellent performances out of his leads, and he has gotten plenty of notable actors to give their best. This is isn’t a great performance from Butler, but certainly a reliable one. Like the rest of the film, the lead actor wears his heart on his sleeve, and it’s more endearing than cheesy.
Unfortunately, if you’re not Sam Childers in this story, you’re not half as rich thematically. With both her role as the supportive wife here and the half-baked love interest from Source Code, Michelle Monaghan has given two fine performances in roles that don’t give her enough to play with. Both times she’s been set up with a proper arc, and then no proper payoff. There’s an intriguing conflict that’s touched upon for her, but is never developed. Sam almost starts to care about about the children he’s saving more than his own family. A conflict arises between the two when Sam starts losing their money for his cause, and the closure to that conflict never comes. Thankfully, Monaghan is enough of a strong screen presence to make these problems more afterthoughts, rather than hindering the whole experience while viewing the film.
Nearly every other dramatic beat is handled with time and a touch of grace. The title hints at a ridiculous action movie, but it’s a compelling drama that will probably make most cynics cringe. Albeit less impressive than some of his other works, Forster’s tale of redemption and finding one’s purpose makes for a semi-inspiring story.
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