Tuesday, August 30, 2016

Machine Gun Preacher

2/4

Starring: Gerard Butler, Michelle Monaghan, Souleymane Sy Savane, Michael Shannon, Madeline Carroll, Kathy Baker

Rated R for Violent Content including Disturbing Images, Language, Some Drug Use and a Scene of Sexuality

I was working at a local art house movie theater when this movie was released.  I saw it once with a date but I didn't review it because I had missed the opening few minutes, and as a personal rule, I never review a movie unless I've seen it from beginning to end.  My thoughts on the film haven't changed much now that I've seen all 129 minutes of it: good ideas, poor focus.

Sam Childers (Butler) has just been released from prison.  He expects to return to his stripper wife Lynn (Monaghan) and daughter and resume his old life of drugs and motorcycles.  But Lynn found Jesus and quit stripping.  Despite her urging, Sam falls back into the same life that got him in trouble in the first place.  After a run-in with a nasty drifter than ends up with him stabbing the guy repeatedly and leaving him on the side of the road, Sam realizes that he has reached rock bottom.  He accepts Jesus and turns his life around.  One day at church they get a fellow pastor working in Uganda.  Sam is inspired by his speech and goes there to "take a look around."  He sees that his fellow Christians are being targeted by the Lord's Resistance Army and decides to help.  But his desire to help makes him an enemy of Joseph Kony, the leader of the LDR, and as one service worker points out, he may be doing more harm than good.  It's certainly taking a toll on his family life.

What's good about this movie is that for a story about a born-again Christian, it doesn't seek to evangelize the audience.  There's no greater feeling of being swindled and insulted than by seeing a movie waste an intriguing premise by using it as an excuse for a Sunday sermon (witness my bitter hatred of "God's Not Dead" and its almost equally unfortunate sequel).  Sam is religious and the film makes sure we understand his mindset, but the movie acts as an impartial observer.  For those interested in making Christian films, this is how to do it right.

Gerard Butler may seem like an effective choice for Sam Childers, but this isn't his best performance.  I get him as a biker, I get him as a desperate savior, and I certainly get him as an action hero (he did, after all, become famous for "300").  But as a preacher?  Not really.  Butler underplays the role, which, in an action movie like this, is the wrong decision.  We need someone we can rally behind rather than someone who internalizes their emotions.  It's a decent performance for another film.

At least he's given good support.  Michelle Monaghan is like Cate Blanchett or Meryl Streep.  If you get her in the movie, you can at least say you did one thing right.  Even in bad movies, Monaghan is a pillar of strength and compassion.  Watching her is always a pleasure, even in lame movies like "Pixels."  Unfortunately, she's given little to do other than be the supporting wife or voice of conscience.  I can't wait to see her get a truly meaty role and win a much deserved Oscar.

The film was directed by Marc Foster, who directed such films as "The Kite Runner" and "Finding Neverland."  While his skills in directing action scenes haven't improved from his disastrous Bond adventure "Quantum of Solace," he's a good storyteller.  Unfortunately, the screenplay first-timer (apart from a teleplay nine years earlier) Jason Keller is all over the map.  It tries to do so much and none of it ends up developed enough to be of any interest.  A better focused story with a clear narrative arc would have made the film so much stronger.

"Machine Gun Preacher" doesn't really end.  It kind of just stops and adds some end titles to say where the characters are now.  It makes sense since this is a true story and Sam is still out there in Sudan.  But it feels awkward and unsatisfying.

This isn't a bad movie, but it should have been a lot better.

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