Movie review: Machine Gun Preacher (Detroit Examiner)

Detroit Movie Examiner

September 30, 2011

Genre:  Action, Drama

Opens locally Friday, September 30th, 2011 (check for showtimes)

Run Time:  2 hours, 7 minutes, Rated R

Starring:  Gerard Butler, Michelle Monaghan, Michael Shannon, Souleymane Sy Savane

Directed by Marc Forster (Monster’s Ball, Finding Neverland, The Kite Runner)

The title “Machine Gun Preacher” implies we’ll get an intense blood-soaked action-mayhem movie, with explosions, and more than a few slow-motion shots of our hero walking into the camera with the world aflame behind him.  The reality is, we do get intense action, graphic violence and explosions, but this is no comic book movie…instead it is an intense adult drama that doesn’t exploit, and only shows us horrible violence when needed.  While not a perfect film, “Machine Gun Preacher” was an unexpectedly good film, with some pretty heavy moral issues at the center, making this a thinking-man’s action flick.

Gerard Butler stars as real-life humanitarian Sam Childers, a former junkie and ex-con who finds the Lord, establishes a church, and opens an orphanage in the heart of the civil-war stricken Sudan.  But he acts first and prays later, the kind of guy who kills to protect those he loves, and believes that murder must be acceptable if done to protect the innocent.  Michelle Monaghan is his ex-stripper wife, and the two have a young daughter as well.  At home is also Sam’s buddy played by Michael Shannon, who at first seems miscast as a drug-dealing biker, but shows that he can pretty much play anybody, as long as he is a low-life creep (nobody in Hollywood does it better right now than Michael Shannon.)

It must be stated that what is (and was) going on in Sudan is unthinkably horrifying.  Children, women, slaughtered nearly every night by a brutal dictator and his army.  Women raped, and children forced to kill other members of their family in order to stay alive.  Devastating acts of evil and violence that continue on even today, without much attention given in the media.

Sam is determined to save the lives of hundreds of children in Sudan, and what started as a curiosity turns into an obsession.  He sells the business, and the car, to fund his Sudan project.  When the killing continues, his anger rises and he decides to fight back.  He becomes a crusader of sorts, the “white preacher” who fights for justice for the under-privileged.

This obsession of course begins to impact his family.  The day to day of American life is no longer of consequence to him…how dare his daughter ask for money to rent a Limo to her formal dance, when he needs every penny to buy a new armored truck?

The best things about “Machine Gun Preacher” are the themes the film asks us to question.  Isn’t murder murder?  How can somebody hold a bible in one hand and an assault rifle in another?  We see Sam’s point about the Limo money, but should the situation in Sudan overshadow every little thing in our lives back home?  The answers are not clear ones, and the movie does a good job of presenting these themes in subtle ways.

That is, until near the end.  The last 15 minutes or so becomes a bit heavy-handed, and more of a message film as opposed to a character study.

Casting seems to be the real issue I had with the film.  Gerard Butler is great during the middle and end of the film as his frustration boils through his born-again persona.  But I just couldn’t help but think what a Russell Crowe or even a Mel Gibson could have brought to the part.  Gerard Butler, to me, doesn’t have that A-list star power, and believing he was a tough ex-con in the early scenes was a bit hard for me to swallow.

Even still, “Machine Gun Preacher” is like Rambo for Smarties, an intense action movie that stays focused on the morality at hand.  Despite not being a perfect film, I really liked it, and found that less graphic violence was actually more impactful…scenes depicting horrifying injuries were few and far between, but every time you see blood in this film you care about where it came from…and that’s rare for an action movie.

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