The machine-gunning is more convincing than the preaching in the muddled melodrama Machine Gun Preacher, although neither aspect works particularly well. Gerard Butler plays Sam Childers, a real-life biker, drug addict and criminal who found Jesus and built an orphanage in what is now South Sudan. In addition to caring for children rescued from the clutches of the Lord’s Resistance Army, Childers took on the fight himself, leading a makeshift militia of Sudanese soldiers on raids against the LRA with the goal of liberating conscripted child soldiers at any cost. The real Childers preaches vengeance and violence, and while the movie sanitizes his story a bit for mainstream consumption, it holds onto the core might-makes-right message.
That’s a little troubling, to say the least, and director Marc Forster and screenwriter Jason Keller don’t seem to know quite how to handle it. They dispatch Childers’ conversion from outlaw to man of God with unconvincing abruptness, and all of his subsequent actions are similarly uncomplicated. Childers may believe he’s being guided by the hand of the Lord, but a character in a movie needs recognizable motivations. A late-film crisis of faith comes off as overblown and contrived, and Childers’ minor conflicts with his wife (Michelle Monaghan) and daughter (Madeline Carroll) are just as ill-conceived.
Then there’s the violence, which is portrayed as glorious retribution, with Butler in full-on action-hero mode. Forster and Keller throw in one dissenting voice, an aid worker who criticizes Childers for his penchant for violence, only to later need rescuing when she’s attacked by the LRA. Butler’s typically smarmy performance doesn’t make Childers likable no matter how many tragically cute kids the filmmakers line up for him to save, and the portrayal of Childers as the only guy in all of Sudan who knows how to get results is more than a little condescending. The whole thing comes off as one long advertisement for Childers’ ministry, which may be doing some good things but is far less righteous than this movie makes it out to be.