Have you ever watched a film based on a true story and felt that you'd prefer to be watching a documentary on the subject instead? I felt that way as the credits rolled on Machine Gun Preacher, during which we see footage and photographs of the film's inspiration, Sam Childers. A drug-using ex-con who rode with biker gangs in early 90's Pennsylvania, Childers later found God and dedicated his life to protecting children in war-torn Sudan and Uganda – amazing story, right? It's the kind of story that filmmakers dream of, offering a perfect arc of redemptive character development as well as numerous action scenes and plenty of abandoned orphans to tug at the heartstrings. The strange thing about Machine Gun Preacher is that while it appears to perfectly fit a familiar narrative structure, actually fitting the story to that structure does it no favours whatsoever.
We first meet Sam when he is released from jail, being met by his loyal wife Lynn (Michelle Monaghan) who has surprising news for him. She underwent a religious conversion while Sam was inside, but after angrily upbraiding her for quitting her steady job as a stripper, Sam goes straight back to his old ways, stealing and taking drugs with buddy Donnie (Michael Shannon, always watchable in a thankless role). Eventually, however, after hitting rock bottom, Sam does join his wife at a service where the Lord, moving in mysterious ways, opens his eyes to a new path. A preacher from Africa comes to town and delivers a sermon that inspires him to travel to Africa, build an orphanage and take up arms against the militia enslaving children across the country. These are all decisions that he takes very quickly.
That's the problem with Marc Forster's film. Sam's evolution from wild man to mercenary happens swiftly and without a real sense of friction, so the emotional catharsis we're expected to experience feels unearned. Forster and screenwriter Jason Keller are unwilling or unable to delve into the conflict at the heart of the title – a man of God who is also a man of violence – and so we have a film that seems to be two pictures awkwardly spliced together. Whenever Sam is plagued by self-doubts, starts alienating his family with his obsessive zeal or rages at the reluctance shown by his rich neighbours to put their hands in their pockets, the scenes feel trite and are played out in a perfunctory manner, and Forster generally seems much happier with the parts of the film that allow his hero to perform Rambo-like heroics. To be fair, that's also where Gerard Butler seems happiest, as we get the sense very early on that his emotional range is being stretched to breaking point by the demands of this character.
Machine Gun Preacher has moments that grip and moments that nearly move, but is that the skill of the filmmaking and acting producing such an effect, or is it simply the strength of the real life tale that the movie is telling? I'd suspect it's the latter, as the bungling approach by the filmmakers can be epitomised by one appalling misjudgement – when the traumatised little orphan who refuses to speak for the whole movie suddenly opens up to Sam at a crucial critical juncture. The exchange reeks of artifice; a scene intended to have the audience weeping but one that will surely have any right-thinking viewer raging at the open manipulation instead. Machine Gun Preacher is based on a remarkable true story; trust Hollywood to turn it into a risibly fake one.