Why is it that uplifting movies based on true stories often feel so untrue and fall so flat? Off screen, Sam Childers is a real guy still living a really interesting life. But onscreen, despite the best efforts of actor Gerard Butler, he's just another thin character spouting trite dialogue in a bogus melodrama.
Back to my question then, and the answer: In these true-story circumstances, writers forget that art plays by different rules than life – art is both less random and more complex. Occasionally, life rises to the challenge of imitating art, but art should never stoop to weakly mimicking life.
And that's why the rat-a-tat-tats in Machine Gun Preacher sound so hollow. The first salvo is your basic sinner-sees-the-light scenario. Just released from jail, Sam (Butler) returns to his Pennsylvania trailer dismayed to learn that his wife has a) quit her profitable job as a stripper and b) found God.
For his part, he's content to rediscover his Harley, his taste for cocaine and his fondness for beating fellow low-lifes to a bloody pulp. Then comes the light. A mere morning in church with his better half (Michelle Monaghan) and a suddenly transformed Sam is gainfully employed in the construction biz, reading bedtime stories to his young daughter, taking a keen interest in the Christian work of African missionaries and broadening his channels of communication: "I know it sounds crazy, but God spoke to me."
Luckily, God's orders are unambiguous: build a church in Pennsylvania and an orphanage in Southern Sudan. The first proves a relatively easy assignment and, in this modest place of worship, Sam assumes the preacher half of the title role.
Luckily again, his sermons are tailor-made to his status as a tattooed ex-biker: "God don't want sheep – he wants wolves." So off the wolf prowls to fulfill the second task, which seems a tad more difficult. As we know, orphanages are needed in Sudan because civil war is constant, villagers are routinely slaughtered, and children lucky enough not to be recruited for battle are left homeless and starving.
Understandably, such a bellicose environment requires Sam to add the machine gun to the preacher. Once more, his biker cred comes in handy – he already knows a thing or two about automatic weapons. And now, as a soldier in God's army, he joins the freedom fighters for shoot-'em-ups against the evil government assassins. A British nurse questions his aggressive strategy, but, in this instance, violence begets nice – an orphanage does get built, hundreds of children do get saved.
Alas, back on the home front, his own family is feeling neglected. His daughter complains: "You love those black babies more than you love me." This prompts in Sam a mini-crisis of conscience and some rather un-Christian behaviour, but, like everything else here, it's nothing that can't be solved with a cheesy plot twist and a convenient epiphany.
Allegedly, the saint still has a streak of sinner in him, although not so we'd notice. Packing on weight for the part, Butler wears the tattoos well but, in the absence of any credible inner turmoil, he's all beefed up with nowhere to go. Saddled with this lumpy script, director Marc Forster seems content to march matters routinely along, perhaps looking back to better days with more convincing sinners in Monster's Ball.
At the end of these "based on a true story" flicks, it's customary to flash photos of the real people over the end credits. There, Sam Childers looks older and less handsome and awfully imposing, a scary sort of cat with raw but authentic tales to tell. I'd like to hear them.
Machine Gun Preacher
- Directed by Marc Forster
- Written by Jason Keller
- Starring Gerard Butler and Michelle Monaghan
- Classification: 14A