Although not a B movie after all, “Machine Gun Preacher” does have some ’sploitation going on. Here the debased include literal truckloads of suffering black African war orphans — and, of course, their white-trash American rescuer, whose soul gets several torture scenes.
He’s played by Gerard Butler, also an executive producer and as such apparently director Marc Forster’s boss. “Machine Gun Preacher” does let Forster be himself, whipping up enough sincerity and credible horror to admonish you for seeing Butler’s name and wanting something more in the spirit of “Hobo With a Shotgun.” And Jason Keller’s script, officially “based on the life of Sam Childers,” abets Butler’s fond impression of the real-life Pennsylvania roughneck whose severe spiritual rehab required building and militantly defending a warlord-besieged Sudanese orphanage.
We first meet Sam on the day he gets out of prison, and he could probably use a cuddle. He’s supposed to be a menacing brute, but that seems phony and overplayed, like mere table-setting for redemption. Butler’s noble intentions are too transparent. Anyway, Sam doesn’t like that his languishing missus, played by Michelle Monaghan, has given up stripping and gotten friendly with Jesus. But as Michael Shannon in the role of Sam’s fellow biker-junkie pal puts it, “Better him than the milkman, right?”
The abjection is off and running by now, with Monaghan and Shannon both stifled by supporting-player doldrums. For the rest of the film, nothing they do will come as the least surprise. That also goes for Souleymane Sy Savane in a token part as freedom-fighter and translator, befriended by Childers in Uganda with a Coke and a smile. We are meant to remember that it is the Sam show, which amounts to variations on the spectacle of his murderous impulses.
This seems like a story that hasn’t quite worked out its position on deadly force. That conundrum could be plenty dramatic enough, but only with a more nuanced investigation than “Machine Gun Preacher” will allow. Forster doesn’t skimp on graphic context: a woman with her lips cut off, a pile of charred corpses, a boy blown up by a land mine. This last is pivotal for Butler, who takes the fallen boy up in his arms, opens that huge gaping “300” mouth of his, and wails with new awareness of the enormity. Later another boy, still alive but rendered mute by his own suffering, summons just enough voice to offer Butler a brief platitudinous pep talk right when he needs it most. Viewed charitably, these turns read as cinematic social consciousness contaminated by vigilante-superhero plot points. And even if that is an accurate reflection of Childers’ view of himself and the world, the missing critical distance seems, well, critical.
Thus do we have one of those movies that makes true events seem too much like movie contrivance. Things get nervier with a hint that saving and avenging the children might just be Childers’ new addiction, but then the film withdraws from that unpleasant analysis, as if chastised into resuming a dubious inspirational course. Butler explores reckless bravado as a dynamic physicalization of faith, but he doesn’t examine it much. Nor do we learn anything, really, about the war in Sudan. Sober closing-credits statistics aside, all the film really says about that actual conflict is how mad it made this one guy.
As per based-on-the-life-of movie mandate, it is also over the credits that we meet the real Childers and Wife, and theirs certainly are the faces of folks who’ve done some hard living. This fact reframes the star-bright glamour of the movie as, if not quite an obscenity, at least an opportunity missed. Apparently this was possible as a documentary all along.