Review: ‘Machine Gun Preacher’ takes hard look at the road to redemption (Detroit News)

Review: ‘Machine Gun Preacher’ takes hard look at the road to redemption

Tom Long/ Detroit News Film CriticWhen does faith become fanaticism?That’s the question at the heart of the wondrously titled “Machine Gun Preacher.” What looks on the surface to be yet another inspiring story of one man’s salvation turns out to be instead both an examination of modern atrocity and a rethinking of the burden/beauty of belief.

Built around a fire-breathing performance from Gerard Butler (“300”) and directed with both scope and specificity by Marc Forster (“Monster’s Ball,” “Finding Neverland”), “Machine Gun Preacher” can be tough to watch as it closes in on the torture and violent abuse suffered by people — chiefly children — in Sudan. Those going seeking tearful uplifting moments best be prepared: This film will not pamper you.

In the film based on a true story and shot partly in Michigan, Butler plays Sam Childers, a drug-dealing biker tough guy who’s just getting out of prison. Shocked when he finds out his wife, Lynn (Michelle Monaghan), has become a born again Christian, Sam stomps out of the family trailer and reunites with his bad boy buddy Donnie (Michael Shannon).

Sam and Donnie are nobody’s idea of nice, and Forster quickly lays out just how on the edge — and violent — they are. But then Sam — and this happens a bit too easily — finds Jesus.

Actually, he doesn’t just find Jesus; he’s consumed by his sudden conversion to Christianity. Out of work, he’s forced to sell his motorcycle; but then things pick up. Thanks to an act of God — a tornado — Sam not only finds work rebuilding his town, but he also starts his own successful business.

Soon enough, he’s starting his own diverse church in town, and he finds himself pressed into duty as an impromptu preacher. Eventually, he runs into a missionary from Africa, and Sam decides he should volunteer to do some work there as well.

What Sam finds in Sudan is an approximation of hell. Rebel soldiers rule the land, often forcing children to take up guns after making them kill their own parents. People are tortured and maimed just for the random fun of it or to scare the general populace into compliance.

Sam decides to build an orphanage, but it is quickly attacked and burned down. That’s when he decides perhaps it’s best to fight fire with the kind of firepower he’s used to.

Meanwhile, his church back home is falling on bad times, his family is struggling to stay solvent, and Donnie — who has also converted — is crumbling.

But Sam has become obsessed with his project in Africa. And his religious fervor has taken on a madness that the devil might recognize.

There are a lot of blank spots in all this. Sam sells his business to finance the orphanage — so how does his family survive? How does the church stay intact without its preacher?

These sort of practical notions get steamrolled by the action scenes in Africa as Sam becomes a somewhat unholy holy warrior.

But it’s that essential dichotomy — killing in the name of God — that keeps “Machine Gun Preacher” more interesting than it might otherwise have been. The white American who is out to save the wretchedly oppressed needs more than a bit of saving himself.

Is he beyond redemption? “Machine Gun Preacher” leaves the question hanging in a way that earns admiration. The opposites in the title hold true through the film.

‘Machine Gun Preacher’

GRADE: B

Rated R for violent content including disturbing images, language, some drug use and a scene of sexuality

Running time: 127 minutes

tlong@detnews.com

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