Machine Gun Preacher, in which Gerard Butler stars as an ex-druggie who finds God and gets his 300 on in war-torn Sudan, is, yes, another white-savior-for-black-Africa melodrama. But the film is almost a pinnacle of self-discipline compared to highfalutin, awards-mongering drivel like In a Better World, Blood Diamond, and The Constant Gardener. Well, maybe more of an anomaly, because in spite of the almost Tinderstickian Asche & Spencher score that gets tinkly as all get out whenever Butler’s Sam Childers hopscotches from Pennsylvania to save African children orphaned by rebel violence, Machine Gun Preacher seems most interested in pulling at the heartstrings of Rambo fans, not Oscar voters, the world over.
From the succulent look of the wretched Monster’s Ball to The Kite Runner‘s Disneyfied vision of third-world strife, director Marc Forster’s canon is rife with overripe folly, so Machine Gun Preacher‘s doc-style humdrumness is sobering by comparison; it’s almost as if Forster, like Childers does whenever he high-tails it out of town to help those afflicted by the war in Sudan, were atoning for past indiscretions. And just as Childers slips once or twice, so does Foster, whose propensity for stylistic overstatement is felt in an early, seizure-inducing scene during which Childers nearly stabs to death an “Indian” hitchhiker while riding home—and high—from a robbery with his tweaker best bud and partner in crime, Donnie (Michael Shannon); the strobe-lit sequence suggests a scene from Natural Born Killers spliced at random into The Fighter.
So, kudos to the pretentiously middlebrow Forster, who most recently followed up the best James Bond movie of all time with a spiritless copycat, for exercising restraint, and props to the cast of actors for believingly fitting in with the sea of overweight, Walmart-shopping, hungry-for-God extras that crowd most of the film’s Pennsylvania-set sequences. Still, though, Forster regards the real-life Childers’s evolution from heroin-addicted, wife-beating (implied), gun-toting oblivion to born-again do-gooderism with motorized aloofness. From Pennsylvania, where Childers owns a successful construction business, to Sudan, where he builds an orphanage and takes aim at the Lord’s Rebel Army, one gets a subtle enough sense of how Childers’s world of haves wears on his white guilt, and at the expense of his sanity, family, and bank account, but Forster only scratches the surface of his protagonist’s struggle with the moral implications of his particular brand of violence. Empathy’s a bitch in Machine Gun Preacher, but its moral toll is not something the by-the-numbers story cares to elaborate on.