A film that went undetected by many since it wasn’t a wide release, Machine Gun Preacher is a feel-good story of redemption that at times can feel like an over-the-top shoot ‘em up action film had it not incredibly been based on a true story.
His first day released from prison, biker-gangster Sam Childers (Gerard Butler) comes home to find out his wife Lynn (Michelle Monaghan) has quit stripping to become a born-again Christian. Angry that they don’t have the steady cash coming in, Sam heads out to the bar where he reverts back into doing drugs and alcohol. When his addictions land him back into a world of violence and blood, Sam seeks to become a better person. Converting to Christianity and finding a legitimate job in construction, Sam is eager to help when a preacher tells him the plight of families who are victim to violent rebel armies in Uganda. Sam travels to the country several times, building orphanages and looking for more people to shelter, but when the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) begins to target Sam, he decides that he must fight back with violence in return.
Preacher is a touchy movie in some areas. Depending on your beliefs, where you stand on the civil war in Uganda, and the way violence and religion may be connected, I can certainly see some people getting offended while watching it. But, this is still based on the decisions and action of one person so it should be looked at objectively. Director Marc Forster and writer Jason Keller are not trying to tell their audience what is the right way to feel about any of those topics, but they are simply showing us what Sam Childers thought was right given his situation. That to me is a very important thing to understand—the main protagonist is not a superhero, just a man trying to act heroically in a situation based on his experiences and moral values.
Then you have the whole Uganda civil war aspect to it, which is definitely a hot topic the past several months with the viral video about Joseph Kony and the ‘Invisible Children’ cause. There was controversy surrounding that video in regards to the true purpose of the creation of that video as well as if the situation was exaggerated for shock value and profit. This film doesn’t tip-toe around the issue, and it shouldn’t, but I’d imagine that if someone truly believed that the war involving child soldiers in Uganda is currently a popular case of hyperbole and propaganda, then they may be wary of the message at the heart of Preacher.
As for the material itself, Forster and Keller need to be commended on the writing and the characterization. Gerard Butler and Michelle Monaghan both turn in very strong performances. The other two stand out actors here are Michael Shannon, who plays Sam’s best friend Donnie, and Souleymane Sy Savane, who is Deng—the freedom fighter who sticks by Sam’s sides as he fights for the people in Africa. Each of them are integral to the transformation of Sam’s character, but are still interesting on their own.
There are some areas where the editing and pacing are a bit murky. Naturally, it is difficult to cram a story such as this into a two hour movie, but there were times where it literally felt like Sam was in Africa for two minutes, then back home for 30 seconds, then back in Africa again a minute later. It was hard to get a sense of how long Sam was gone between visits and how much changed for the supporting characters in that time. There was a scene where Sam attacks a hitchhiker in the beginning of the film that I was sure would amount to something at the end, but sadly it was left alone without any further mention. And some of the gun fights looked sloppy and strategically confusing.
Overall, this film has a lot going for it. It certainly isn’t slow, but it doesn’t get too carried away with the action. It’s not perfect, and maybe not for everybody, but if you find the premise interesting enough than it is worth a watch. Gerard Butler fans will want to watch perhaps his strongest role yet, while those who support “Invisible Children” and similar causes will feel very strongly about the content. As an art form based purely on its style and presentation, it’s a breath of fresh air.
Overall: 8 out of 10