According to the Bible, Jesus' Sermon on the Mount includes this chestnut: "Be careful not to practice your righteousness in front of others to be seen by them...do not announce it with trumpets, as the hypocrites do." But Jesus could not have anticipated the Age of Oprah with its bestselling memoirs and awards-baiting Hollywood pictures based on true stories.
So can't a righteous guy get a little attention? Marc Forster's Machine Gun Preacher gives Sam Childers plenty, in its basically uncritical portrait of a modern-day soldier of God. Forster's film arrives billed neither as an adaptation of Childers' memoir Another Man's War nor the skeptical 2010 Vanity Fair profile that followed, but rather "the life of Sam Childers," the outlaw biker turned outlaw international vigilante.
As the self-described "hillbilly from Pennsylvania," Scotsman Gerard Butler delivers an unconvincing performance that's part and parcel of a phony film lacking in any narrative subtlety or finesse. After a tease of child-related atrocities in Southern Sudan, screenwriter Jason Keller takes us stateside, where Childers strides out of prison (sporting Harley T-shirt and leather vest), has sex with his wife Lynn (Michelle Monaghan)—in her car, pauses at home to scare his young daughter by verbally abusing Lynn, then returns to a life of crime, shooting up in the bathroom stall of a bar, committing armed robbery while repeatedly slinging the n-word at his victim, and finally stabbing a man and leaving him for dead. Why, surely this can't be the machine gun preacher!
But it so totally is. Prodded by his wife and mother (Kathy Baker), Childers submits to born-again baptism, and next thing you know he's an upstanding contractor and hymn singer who hears a pitch for Christian charity work abroad and takes it to heart. Scouting Northern Uganda in the company of Christian missionaries, Childers swiftly finds himself moved by the plight of those living in the shadow of the brutal "Lord's Rebel Army." The LRA routinely kidnaps children, conscripting them as child soldiers or selling them into slavery; after receiving his own marching orders directly from God, Childers determines to build a church at home (for "sinners like me") and an orphanage in Sudan.
Terrific, and as the film’s tagline proclaims, “hope is the greatest weapon of all,” but as it turns out, machine guns work pretty well, too. Though the film cracks a joke about gun nuttery (asked “Are you military?” Childers replies, “Hell no. I just like my guns”), the later description of the character as “some kind of African Rambo” pretty much hits the nail on the head as Childers takes up arms and teams with locals to defend and protect. Though justifiable, this choice is one we’re meant to doubt even less than Childers does—the rageaholic having found an acceptable target—and we’re to root for him to stick to his guns.
Whether his choice of violent behavior is healthy or Christian or geopolitically wise never gets questioned beyond the extent that it takes him away from his family. Besides, his “brothers” in Northern Uganda and Southern Sudan are his new family, where out of the mouth of a babe he learns (cue the eye-rolling)“We must not let them take our heart.” Machine Gun Preacher ploddingly adheres to Forster’s Law: every action has an equal and obvious reaction.
[This review first appeared in Palo Alto Weekly.]