Gerard Butler has spent the first few years of his career as a certain kind of movie star-- the handsome, muscular, man's-man you can count on for a drop kick and a scowl but nothing much deeper than that. In Machine Gun Preacher, he's trying to become a different kind of movie star-- the handsome, muscular, man's-man who you can also believe when he sobs over the body of a Ugandan child killed by a land mine. To his credit, Butler actually pulls this off, but it's in spite of the turgid and self-serious movie that surrounds him; Butler seems to truly understand the remarkable man he's playing, but Machine Gun Preacher never builds real cinema around what could have been a fascinating true story.
There's no denying that Sam Childers is a figure worthy of the biopic treatment. A former bike gang member, heroin addict and armed robber, Childers got out of prison to find his wife (Michelle Monaghan) a born-again Christian, and after a few trips back down the rabbit hole of addiction and crime, found religion himself. The fierce personality that Sam once used to score drugs and intimidate his enemies gets funneled into his preaching, and eventually into a mission trip to Uganda through the church; when the rest of the group is spending the weekend on a trip to the city, Sam talks a local (Souleymane Sy Savane) into taking him to southern Sudan. With the civil war raging, Sam witnesses any number of heartbreaking things, from streams of children who seek safe places to sleep at night to the aforementioned dead child, killed by a land mine when chasing after his dog.
Sam has proven himself to be fearless and never slow to take action, and by the time he returns home to Pennsylvania he's already drawing up plans not just for a new church in his hometown, but an orphanage in southern Sudan to house all the children whose parents were killed in the war. We see him struggle a little to raise the money, but for the most part his difficulties are more physical, from a growing gulf between him and his wife to the time he has to defend the orphanage with a machine gun in hand. Director Marc Forster allows some room for the complexities of Sam's role in Sudan-- at one point he's defending himself against children drafted as soldiers, and his not-totally-welcome status as a white savior is hinted at by other Africans-- but for the most part Sam is a crusading cowboy in a lawless land, putting himself in danger in order to protect dozens of helpless innocents.
Remarkably, it's not even the thorny race issues that trip up Machine Gun Preacher; it's Forster's and screenwriter Jason Keller's inability to make this feel like anything other than a beat-by-beat recreation of a story that might be better told by Childers himself up at a pulpit. As good as Butler is, we never really get inside Sam and his decision-making, watching him do drastic things-- build the orphanage, pick up a machine gun, snap at a kid who innocently spills tea on him-- while only guessing at his own internal turmoil. And while the situation is an age-old conflict of good vs. evil, there's no real conflict built within the story, no villains or obstacles to root against other than the general foes of warlords and death.
Michael Shannon is at his usual bug-eyed best in a supporting role as Sam's pal from the old days, but the rest of the cast beyond Butler feels oddly stilted, either uncomfortable in their blue collar roles (as Monaghan is) or stuck playing noble Africans with precious few actual lines. It's impossible to see Machine Gun Preacher and not come away with new respect for Butler, who is hopefully past the "disposable rom-com" part of his career, but there's not much to recommend the movie beyond his magnetic performance and the chance to meet the incredible man he's playing.