By Bill Wine
KYW Newsradio 1060

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Truth may be stranger than fiction.  But that doesn’t mean that it’s better.

We’re reminded of that during the biographical drama Machine Gun Preacher, which tells the true story of Sam Childers, a violent ex-con who has a spiritual awakening and turns his life around in wholly unexpected ways.

Gerard Butler stars as the former drug-dealing criminal, a Philadelphia native who, when he’s released from prison, immediately returns to his violent, law-flaunting ways, running with a biker gang and committing armed robberies.

Then, after a near-death experience, he agrees to go to church with his wife — who has found God and wants her husband to do the same — and does indeed have a life-changing transformation.

Born again, he responds to a new calling by going to dictator-run East Africa to help repair homes destroyed in the civil war.

Outraged by the devastating horrors perpetrated on the people, especially the children of Sudan, Childers takes on the construction of a much-needed orphanage located in the middle of territory controlled by the vicious Lord’s Resistance Army, an atrocity-prone renegade militia that has terrorized northern Uganda and southern Sudan, and is forcibly recruiting pre-teen youngsters and forcing them not only to serve as soldiers but in some cases to murder their own parents.

Wanting to save as many children as possible (rather than just shelter them as victims), he founds a rescue organization called “Angels of East Africa” and leads armed rescue missions deep into enemy territory to rescue hundreds of kidnapped kids.

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Having transformed himself into a humanitarian and activist in the process — as well as a dynamic and effective preacher — he becomes the savior of hundreds of kidnapped and orphaned children.  But that doesn’t sit well at home, where his
wife (Michelle Monaghan) and daughter (Madeleine Carroll) feel neglected by him.

Accomplished director Marc Forster (Monster’s Ball, Finding Neverland, Stranger Than Fiction, The Kite Runner, Quantum of Solace), who co-produced with Butler, may be thematically well intentioned, but his artistic execution is graceless.  What he has in fact made is an exploitation flick about faith, never finding a tone that allows the supposedly inspirational elements to coexist with the graphic action sequences.

The simplistic screenplay by Jason Keller never makes the central character’s transformation understandable or believable.

We certainly cannot argue with or object to where the film’s heart is.  But, true though the events may be, within the context of what’s on screen, they come off as contrived and inauthentic.

And the film isn’t exactly helped by the ham-fisted performance of Butler, who not for the first time is out of his depth. Although he may have the right look for the role, Butler is such an inexpressive actor that, even aided as he should be by our knowledge that these events actually occurred, he never brings his pivotal character into three-dimensional life.

And because he snarls non-stop, barking out each line of dialogue with the same ferociousness and intensity, we never feel his conviction.  Thus he never reconciles the man of God with the man of violence.  Consequently, he helps drain the narrative arc of any power it may have to move us.

So we’ll awaken 2 stars out of 4 for a movie with something to say that doesn’t know how to say it.  Machine Gun Preacher is a sledgehammer drama.

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