EXPECTATIONS: I have been very cruel about Gerard Butler in the past. At one point, I even said he has tiny eyes, which is entirely untrue. He actually has normal-sized eyes. It's just that he has a gigantic head.
REALITY: In all honesty, Butler is a capable and talented actor; he just doesn't really have movie star charisma. Here, though, he plays such a disjointed and inconsistent character that it's really a testament to him that it works at all, for what little of it that does work.
Fresh out of prison, junkie biker Sam Childers (Butler) returns to his life of abusing his wife (Michelle Monaghan), robbing drug dealers and generally being a lovely person. Strangely enough, after all the running around with shotguns and injecting his friend with heroin while he's driving, it is the self-defence stabbing of a would-be hijacker that makes him feel he's gone too far. So traumatic is this experience that he turns to Jesus and decides to go to Africa and save all of its children single-handedly by shooting lots of bad guys, earning him the titular nickname Machine Gun Preacher. This is accepted without any fanfare at all.
The major dramatic cruxes of the story should hinge on the massive character reversals of the lead character, but instead they are completely glossed over in favour of scenes glorifying the immediate healing power of the great, white American we all know as Jesus Christ. This religious agenda is no better than the atheism in Paul or The Invention of Lying. A man who spent his life shooting people, taking smack and abusing his family isn't going to go through an instant transformation because a priest dunked his head underwater. That's simply lazy characterization.
Here's the machine gun...
The arc that the film actually focuses on - the idea that Childers forsakes his friends and family in favour of his charity work - is nowhere near as interesting as the stuff they throw away in the first act. Here's a perfect example: Shortly after his baptism, Childers' old friend Donnie (Michael Shannon) offers him "a hit"; in the following scene, he returns home with a needle-mark in his arm. His wife is horrified until he reveals the mark is there because he gave blood; that is the kind of thing he does, now that he's God's personal super-saviour. I'm glad that tension was lifted; for a moment there, I doubted the instant rehabilitating powers of baptism.
...and here's the preaching. End of story.
Many scenes in this film feel incomplete, like when Childers has a change of heart and calls his home, but then doesn't bother talking to his wife at all. It seems like big dramatic threads are left hanging simply because the film is in such a hurry to move toward an ending that doesn't even feel like it's worthy of the name. Every moment of screentime that could be spared is used for scenes of Gerard Butler blowing up trucks with rocket launchers and machine-gunning the bad guys before looking out over the faces of the poor children he just saved. That would be fine, but this never feels like it's that movie in the first place. The heartfelt conversations with the family would be much more watchable in this instance.
The only thing that elevates this film is its cast. Butler turns in his best performance to date. He manages to bring a certain level of balance to a film in which time and consistency are completely thrown to the wind. Everyone else acquits themselves very capably, especially Michael Shannon, who is another of those wonderfully odd character actors that I can't get enough of. None of this really helps much, though, as Machine Gun Preacher is a sloppy film that uses important current issues to hide the fact that it doesn't really have anything worthwhile to say.
MINORITY REPORT: Judging from the Professor's account, I have no idea what game Marc Forster is playing here. Is he trying to make a preachy, moralizing action movie? Is he genuinely trying to do a biopic about Sam Childers? Or is he simply trying to distance himself as much as possible from Quantum of Solace? - Joseph "Jay Dub" Wade
Nightwatch Brigade Insignia: Awarded for hiding in a coat closet and watching God's Not Dead, God's Not Dead 2, and Last Man Standing on a 1980s-era portable tv every night instead of sleeping
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