Machine Gun Preacher is the bullets-and-all biography of a drug-abusing criminal American biker who becomes an unlikely Christian soldier and savior to hundreds of African orphans.
Don’t be misled by the sensationalistic title, or concerns about a possible surplus of spirituality. This powerful true story is neither a Hobo With a Shotgun exploitation flick nor a sermonizing parable a la The Cross and the Switchblade. (Hands up, anyone else who remembers that 1970 movie starring Pat Boone as a hip minister.)
The often emotionally devastating Machine Gun Preacher doesn’t whitewash the less than saintly aspects of Sam Childers, played with ferocious commitment by Gerard Butler. Released from prison, Sam spends his first night of freedom angrily berating wife Lynn (Michelle Monaghan) for giving up stripping because she’s found God. Then he’s off on his Harley to a seedy bar, where a big redhead gives him a fix in a bathroom. Sam later shoots up a rowhouse in a home invasion robbery, then brutally stabs a hitchhiker who made the mistake of pulling a knife first.
That violent incident affects Sam so much he joins Lynn and teenage daughter Paige (Madeline Carroll) at church, resolving to turn his life around. In a scene reminiscent of Forrest Gump‘s post-hurricane shrimp bounty, a tornado’s destruction provides Sam with so many construction jobs he is able to start his own business. When a visiting mission worker says Uganda needs building project volunteers, Sam asks fellow reformed biker Donnie (Michael Shannon) to look after the family and gets on a plane. As Sam later notes, “God don’t only call the good.”
A side trip to war-torn Sudan so horrifies and infuriates Sam that he takes up arms with the Sudanese People’s Liberation Army to fight the rebels, ignoring a smugly idealistic aid worker who notes that “this place does not need more guns.” Quietly dignified SPLA soldier Deng (Souleymane Sy Savane) comes to admire and fear the man locals begin calling “the white preacher,” who builds, staffs and defends an orphanage in the war zone.
Jason Keller’s screenplay succeeds in portraying Sam as a multi-layered character who rejects the notion that God wants his followers to be peaceful sheep. “He wants wolves!” Sam shouts from the pulpit of his Pennsylvania church, after witnessing the aftermath of a monstrous mass murder in Sudan. “He wants soldiers who will fight against his enemies!”
Marc Forster, who directed films ranging from the gritty Monster’s Ball to the gentle Finding Neverland before helming the most recent James Bond outing Quantum of Solace, keeps what could have been a painfully earnest project from getting too sappy or sanctimonious. Although portions are heroically righteous, there’s more meat here than angel food cake.
The real Sam Childers appears during the closing credits, summing up the dichotomy at the heart of his compassionate but commanding character. Discussing the kidnappings that occur regularly in Sudan, he asks, “If I said I can bring your child home, does it matter how I bring ’em home?”
Machine Gun Preacher may be chided by some for its lack of irony or cynicism regarding Sam’s religious faith. Also, a few scenes are admittedly awkward if inevitable, such as daughter Paige’s tearful complaint that “you love them black babies more than you love me,” or a bar fight that breaks out when a taunting racist refers to Africans as “porch monkeys” and worse. But chances are good that many viewers will be so moved they will want to support Sam Childers’ ongoing efforts to rescue children in Sudan.
For those who didn’t bring a pen to the theater, his aid organization’s website is angelsofeastafrica.org.