I bet Sam Childers is a fascinating man. A former drug dealer, the self-described Pennsylvania hillbilly had spent time in prison before turning his life around in the '90s by finding God and then focusing his energies on helping orphaned children in Sudan. But that didn't just mean building some houses; he took up arms against the nation's bloodthirsty militia. If that makes him sound like a real-life Rambo, well, then you can understand why he'd make a worthy character for a film. Unfortunately that film, "Machine Gun Preacher," can't get out of its own way to tell that story.
Directed by Marc Forster ("Monster's Ball," "Finding Neverland"), the film stars Gerard Butler as Childers, and we start off seeing him at his lowest point as he's leaving jail to be reunited with his wife Lynn (Michelle Monaghan) and their young daughter. While he's been gone, Lynn has decided to stop stripping and start going to church. Childers doesn't want to hear any religious mumbo-jumbo, but as he falls back into his old ways (aided and abetted by his buddy Sam, played by Michael Shannon), he begins to wonder if maybe there might be something to this God business.
A tormented man's struggles with redemption would be enough material for a feature film, but that's just the starting point for "Machine Gun Preacher," which follows Childers as he heads to the Sudan (and later Uganda) and becomes increasingly enmeshed in the plight of children caught in the crossfire of war. The film is a personal journey with a war-movie edge to it. The blunt-force heroism of "Rambo" might be the most likely comparison, but at its best "Machine Gun Preacher" tries to get closer to the spirit of "Lawrence of Arabia," showing how a seemingly unimportant man found himself in a time of crisis, becoming a leader but also risking losing his way in the process.
That's an interesting approach that's far more complex than the typical "white guy saves the day" drama, as is the fact that Childers is not the typical hero for this sort of film. Proudly evangelical, he delivers sermons about God's power, making "Machine Gun Preacher" one of the most overtly religious Hollywood films in recent memory, although it lacks the nuance of Vera Farmiga's terrific "Higher Ground" from last month. Plus, he's a man who seems to lose interest in his family as he returns again and again to Africa, leading armed men into battle to rescue children in harm's way. The movie doesn't want to make him a clear hero, openly asking whether his sacrifices actually make a difference in such a decimated region.
There's so much to chew on in "Machine Gun Preacher," so why's the movie so resolutely drab? A large part of the blame has to go to Forster. Starting off promisingly with "Monster's Ball," a well-observed indie character piece, Forster has since evolved into one of those directors whose work reeks of "prestige" without necessarily being great. "Finding Neverland" was strong work, but "The Kite Runner" seemed to base its every creative decision on what was most Oscar-advantageous, and his James Bond film, "Quantum of Solace," was an interesting experiment that resulted in a thoroughly uninteresting movie. "Machine Gun Preacher" brings together parts of Forster's earlier films -- the well-meaning sanctimony of "Kite Runner," the character work of "Monster's Ball," the action of "Quantum of Solace" -- but what you're left with is this vaguely bored sensation. Everything is put together very professionally, but it feels a touch too bloodless and formal.
What "Machine Gun Preacher" needs is that streak of unpredictability that Childers seems to ooze. Butler hasn't had a particularly distinguished film career, but this performance suggests a rugged sense of humor and cocky bravery that haven't been used to good effect much before. The movie highlights the continuing problems in Africa, introduces us to a fascinating guy, and convinces you that Butler has the chops if he can find the right material. But the movie itself? That's the part that doesn't work.