In 2008’s blitzkrieg actioner “Rambo,” writer-director Sylvester Stallone recognized the real-life struggles of the people of Myanmar, dramatizing the struggle in a blood-drenched exploitation film that, despite its inelegance, emboldened the people of that region while lionizing a fictional hero of guerilla warfare. The problem with “Machine Gun Preacher,” Marc Forster’s third world drama about a real-life would-be savior who ventured into the Sudan and attempted to build an orphanage with sheer will and a smidgen of gunpower, is that it’s afraid to be “Rambo.”
Surely Forster’s got an avatar of badass in the same league as Stallone in Gerard Butler. Not necessarily much of an actor, Butler can’t really play nuance as much as he can scowl, brood and posture. But he sure makes a hell of an entrance — after a brief opening where we see the strife of the Sudanese people, Butler struts out of prison with a glower and a mullet, cursing off the guards, as the title, and the credits “Gerard Butler” and “Executive Producer Gerard Butler” are superimposed over his intimidating frame. Credit Forster for restraint, as George Thorogood’s “Bad To The Bone” doesn’t play on the soundtrack.
Butler plays Sam Childers, a biker bad boy who isn’t shy about his criminal background. Forster does everything in his power to stack the deck against the character’s likability, and the sometimes-charismatic Butler is more than willing to indulge in Childers’ demons. Within moments of leaving prison into the arms of his wife Lynn (Michelle Monaghan, forever underused), he’s chastising her for quitting the strip clubs, a frustration that leads him back to his drug-abusing best buddies. When Michael Shannon co-stars as the lesser sociopath, you know you’re dealing with a nasty piece of work.
Forster plays his R-rated hand pretty heavily in these opening scenes, indulging in Childers’ possibly-factual bad boy behavior, which involves knocking off a crack house with shotgun in hand, then murdering a vicious drifter and leaving the body to rot on the sidewalk (we’re weirdly informed later in the film that he lived — oh thank God). Before Childers stumbles into church in search of atonement, it’s difficult to not morally turn on this character. At the start of the film, we’ve given the movie star handsome thug a fair shake, and he’s murdered, stolen, abused his loved ones, and taken hard drugs. From a moral standpoint, it takes a lot for someone to return from that precipice.
Childers makes the unexpected right turn of committing himself to religion, and within a few moments of exposition, he’s headed to Africa to help build churches for the impoverished. Not used to being told not to go where he wants, he finds it curious that no one will venture beyond certain demilitarized zones, and it’s not long before he’s developing connections, finding soldiers willing to support an orphanage in no man’s land. Naturally, those in power find this act of humanity a more dangerous political gesture, and so begins a series of setbacks that flummox Childers, leading to him basically becoming Rambo, and bringing in heavy artillery in his attempts to bring peace to this region.
Except Forster doesn’t even begin to question the hypocrisy of Childers’ stance, the act of using a gun to bring peace, simply by naked virtue. Childers IS Rambo, but Forster and company are afraid to admit it: a lone man wandering into a politically-volatile situation with weapons of righteousness despite not understanding the context of this struggle, and not speaking the language, but still being able to spot, and kill, the bad guys. Forster wants to bring nuance to this story, so he has moments of introspection, but only of the primitive kind: did you guess that there was a scene where Childers screams to the Heavens as he clutches the legless corpse of a child?
Back at home, tensions grow, as Childers has pooled all of his resources into saving the children of Sudan as well as establishing his own church for the wayward in his own home town. The fact that he’s losing his family comes to a head only in the most convenient of times. An early scene showcases a despondent Childers on the phone with his wife, ready to give up after rebels destroyed one of his churches, but his wife, sounding not very different from Talia Shire, tells him he needs to start building again. Never do we see this character’s conversion into an uncaring nag, which is what she becomes as she realizes her husband can no longer support the family. What, do Sudanese orphanages grow from trees?
It seems unfortunate that Butler, who apparently shepherded this project, found the need to spotlight himself in every scene, shortchanging not only the Sudanese characters (noble, quiet, conveniently introspective, possibly magical), but also family and friends back home. Michael Shannon’s criminal buddy, we’re meant to believe, cleans up his act when he learns his best friend is opening up a church. Or so we’re to believe, as he spends most of the film’s second half cheering from the background, while Childers lets him stay with his family and help around the house. Given Shannon’s typically intense performance, allowing this reformed junkie to live with the wife and kids seems like dubious decision-making on Childers‘ part. As such, when Childers’ clearly fifteen year old daughter lies in bed and asks him to read her a book while Dad is in another country, the otherwise-innocent moment has an unnecessarily upsetting context. Also, she should probably be reading to herself at that age, but that’s neither here nor there.
Like Marc Forster’s previous work, “Machine Gun Preacher” is utterly devoid of subtlety or visual imagination. Those who complained about his incoherent action scenes of “Quantum Of Solace” will get a number of shootouts with no rhythm or sense of geography. Those that found his little-seen drama “Stay” awash in murky darkness will recognize the inky incomprehensibility of this picture’s night time scenes. To those who found Forster’s understanding of children and their imaginations utterly alien in “Finding Neverland” will again see Forster’s bewilderment at how they behave. Forster is a rich man’s Joel Schumacher, and in kowtowing to the needs of a Gerard Butler Vanity Project, he’s shown us exactly how to sell out in Hollywood, by avoiding the need for an artist to have a compelling individual voice. “Machine Gun Preacher” ends up being not a Gerard Butler Showcase, nor a Marc Forster Joint, or even a tribute to the real-life Sam Childers (here seen weirdly glorifying vigilante justice in a post-credits stinger). It’s merely “Rambo” done wrong. [D]