‘Machine Gun Preacher” is extraordinary on two levels: First, it’s based on a true story about a man who went from a life of violent crime and drug addiction to building an orphanage in war-torn Sudan. And second, he did it all without looking at a computer screen, ever.
Okay, maybe the real Sam Childers tweets and scrolls an iPhone once in a while. But in “Machine Gun Preacher,” Childers — as portrayed by Gerard Butler — behaves as though his fingers have never tapped on a keyboard and the only thing the word Mac has ever conjured for him is a burger. Hairy and sweaty and sporting facial pores the size of saucers, Butler’s Childers is probably listed under “testosterone” in the dictionary. He’s an ape, but a wonderfully courageous and inspiring one.
And who better to play him than Hollywood’s go-to guy for sheer, undiluted maleness: Gerard “300” Butler? You look at the man and you want to run for cover, lest he come chasing after you with those hammy fists, roaring some indecipherable abuse and possibly belching at the same time.
Sure, Butler has starred in gentlemanly roles before (“Nim’s Island” anyone?) and has a sizable number of rom-coms under his belt (“The Bounty Hunter,” “The Ugly Truth”), but truth be told, he’s best when in full-throttle ape mode, with no love relationships to hinder his path, no digital device to cloud his mind and preferably as little clothing as possible. In “Machine Gun Preacher,” his outfit consists mainly of tank tops and cargoes. Rambo style.
Before his African stint, Childers was a biker/crack addict/alcoholic bum in the American Deep South, just out of prison and already yelling at his wife, Lynn (Michelle Monaghan). He’s mad because in his absence Lynn started going to church and quit her job as a stripper, and she now has no cash to buy his heroin. Plus, his young daughter, Paige (Madeline Carroll) is scared to death of his fuming, hulking frame and won’t go near him.
Pretty soon, Sam is sitting on the toilet in a bar shooting up, then he’s robbing/knifing a passerby and beating a couple of guys to a pulp (not necessarily in that sequence). Talk about a guy who wastes no time.
The story doesn’t linger on what a god-awful A-hole Childers is, mainly because his bad, bad back-story is too hefty to pack into a mere two hours. Director Marc Forster moves at the speed of light: Sam receives a full-immersion baptism, finds God, hugs Lynn and tells her he’s gonna change. This isn’t too difficult, as Sam is a contractor and builder and there are plenty of jobs around for muscle-bound born-again Christians such as himself.
But in the late 1990s, after he builds a new house for the family and reconciles with Paige, Sam learns of the ongoing Second Sudanese Civil War and is stirred to action. A man of few words, he mutters, “I reckon those people need all the help they can get,” and boards a plane.
Sam seems to have his work cut out for him. Holding no truck with red tape and refusing to abide by the rules, he gets each job done the violent way, and then takes his hoe to another row, and another. In a matter of months, he’s become his own one-man army, saving orphans in Uganda and Sudan while warding off blows from the kidnapping, human-trafficking, genocidal Lord’s Resistance Army.
Forster knows how to build powerful drama on the shoulders of desperate men (see “Quantum of Solace,” “The Kite Runner” and “Monster’s Ball”), and he seems to have no qualms or fear about drawing their flaws and thorned/craggy edges. The character of Sam is intriguing because he deploys his brutish nature and dark, ungovernable guilt complex to full advantage in helping others. He finds plenty of critics who call him a glory-seeking hypocrite. He runs into a whole lot of resistance when trying to enlist aid from his fellow white men.
None of this dents his armor, and he continues to work like someone who has about two hours to redeem himself before falling headlong into the flames of hell. Every single minute counts. Every hour spent not doing something for the orphans is an hour wasted. Back home, Lynn and Paige feel alienated and Sam’s congregation clamor for attention. But in Africa, the work never lets up. Every day brings news of some unspeakable atrocity, coupled with a plea for immediate help.
The film is as rough-hewn and bitter on the palate as its hero, but the quality of filmmaking is ultimately beside the point. That Sam Childers really exists is what counts. And for that, one can only be grateful.