Sam Childers, the born-again hell-raiser of Machine Gun Preacher, only feels like he was invented by Hollywood.
In fact, he's very real: a drug-dealing biker and violent rabble-rouser who, after finding religion, became a gun-toting crusader for hundreds of orphans in East Africa during the 1990s (work that he continues to this day).
Had the film been the cynical concoction of studio executives it would be laughably dismissed: the aggression of Rambo spliced with the feel-goodness of The Blind Side, featuring yet another white saviour of victimized minorities.
Instead, because it's based on real people and events, it carries unquestionable emotional heft despite its equally undeniable flaws. Chief among them? That while its heart is in the right place, its head is hopelessly scattered. By the end of its rushed, superficial dramatization of a fascinating life, you'll have seen Childers at his best and worst without genuinely feeling like you know him at all.
The story begins, appropriately, in prison, as Childers (Gerard Butler) is released for what we assume is the umpteenth time. Far from repentant, he's belligerent and abusive, immediately berating his wife Lynn (Michelle Monaghan) for quitting her lucrative gig stripping at a local dive bar. From there, he's roaring on his bike through rural Pennsylvania, shooting heroin with best pal and fellow junkie Donnie (Michael Shannon) and brutally robbing crack houses at gunpoint. Just like old times.
But after an especially harrowing night of bloodshed rattles even him, he joins his wife at church and becomes a born-again Christian. Eventually, he starts up his own construction company and travels to East Africa to help children left orphaned -- and worse -- by an ongoing civil war.
Eventually he's so moved by the plight of the young victims of the Lord's Resistance Army -- a Ugandan militia condemned for its crimes against humanity -- that he builds them an orphanage, then wages war to protect its residents. Just because he's turned his back on his old life doesn't mean Childers is ready to turn the other cheek.
To its credit, the film, while painted in broad strokes, doesn't suggest Childers has transformed into a different -- or even improved -- person. He still neglects his own family, including daughter Paige (Madeline Carroll), and remains as difficult and self-destructive as he ever was. He just now has a new focus -- or, as director Marc Forster himself has theorized, a new addiction.
Yet frustratingly, Jason Keller's skin-deep script never successfully addresses this dichotomy. As a result, the movie, for all its turmoil and emotion, feels too tidy, too smoothly told, to sink in.
That's no slight against Butler, who is ideally suited to Childers' blustery rage and sullen machismo. He hasn't made a lot of great choices since 300 (The Bounty Hunter, anyone?), but here he takes a significant stride towards redemption. Less well served are Monaghan and Shannon, both of whom are stranded in underwritten parts.
Machine Gun Preacher is still worthwhile -- it does, after all, shed much-needed light on the grim situation in war-savaged Africa. If only it could have similarly illuminated its unbendable, inscrutable anti-hero.