Thursday, 7 March 2013

Machine Gun Preacher

Machine Gun Preacher

Bad-ass biker Sam Childers (Gerard Butler) gets out of prison, bangs his wife Lynn (Michelle Monaghan) in the parking lot and jumps feet-first back into a life of petty crime and drug addiction.  Annoyed that Lynn has given up her lucrative stripper gig for a minimum wage job where she gets to keep her clothes on after finding God and becoming a born again Christian, Sam hooks up with his good buddy Donnie (Michael Shannon) and has what looks like a fine old time drinking, shooting smack and robbing drug dealers at gunpoint.

However, when Sam almost kills a man during a frenzied stabbing, he hits bottom and decides to turn his life around.  Accompanying Lynn to church, Sam finds both God and a purpose when he’s baptised and hears a visiting missionary talk about his work among in Africa.  Heading off to Uganda, Sam throws himself into building churches, schools and hospitals until he meets laconic soldier Deng (Souleymane Sy Savane), a commander in the Sudan People’s Liberation Army, who takes him north into Southern Sudan where the SPLA are locked in a bloody civil war with the Lord’s Resistance Army led by psychotic warlord Joseph Kony.

Seeing first-hand the atrocities committed by Kony and the LRA (murder, mutilation, abduction, forcing children into sexual slavery and to become child soldiers) Sam resolves to build an orphanage in the heart of the war zone, offering protection and a home for the hundreds of displaced children of the conflict.  But when the LRA attack the orphanage, Sam is forced to defend it, falling back on his old instincts, taking up the gun and getting all Old Testament on their asses…

Based on the nominally true story of the real Sam Childers, an ex-con and missionary who built the largest orphanage in Southern Sudan and for the last 13 or so years has been augmenting his humanitarian work with a little Biblical justice, waging his own personal war on Kony’s LRA, Machine Gun Preacher is a po-faced, heavy-handed exercise in liberal guilt and Christian propaganda that really has no right to be as good as it is. 

Almost entirely lacking in humour, it’s a sincere, straight telling of Childers’ story of redemption featuring a towering performance from Gerard Butler and some blistering action scenes from Finding Neverland and Quantum of Solace director Forster.  Gritty violence erupts suddenly, out of nowhere, and the film doesn’t shy away from showing the resulting carnage; a child is forced to club his own mother to death, a woman has her lips cut off, children are staked out as bait, shot, maimed, burned alive.  In one of the film’s tenser scenes, Childers and his comrades come under fire from an enemy sniper, the execution and devastating resolution echoing the close of Full Metal Jacket.

Butler has rarely been better.  Never the best of actors, Butler is a graduate of the Sean Connery school of acting; whether he’s playing an American Hell’s Angel building an orphanage in Africa or a 480 BC Spartan warrior or the Phantom of the Paris Opera, Gerry always sounds like a guy you’d meet in a pub in Paisley.  But he has charisma to burn and here brings a sympathetic ambiguity to Childers and his crusade, suggesting that like most addicts, Childers is merely swapping one addiction for another – drugs and drink for God and charity work which are then supplanted by his addiction to violence and death ultimately turning inward as part of a self-destructive cycle as he flirts with suicide.  It’s in exploring this darker, Conradian side of Childers character as he goes a bit Colonel Kurtz that Butler really shines, making his dark night of the soul and eventual hard-won redemption all the more affecting.

Machine Gun Preacher isn’t going to teach you anything you didn’t already know; it’s unsubtle and you never really learn too much about the political complexities of the conflict in Southern Sudan.  But then the child soldiers fighting there probably don’t know too much about it either and while the self-appointed white saviour helping out his poor, black brothers makes for uncomfortable viewing at times, the story of Childers and the place of safety he carved out for children forgotten by the West is a remarkable one that needs and deserves to be told as brutally and bombastically as it is in Machine Gun Preacher.     

David Watson

Marc Forster
Gerard Butler, Michelle Monaghan, Michael Shannon, Souleymane Sy Savane
Written by
Jason Keller
Running time
129 minutes

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