Machine Gun Preacher: Forster Biopic Starring Gerard Butler

Conceptually and thematically, Marc Forster has been a bold director ever since his impressive Sundance Film Fest debut, “Everything Put Together,” in 2000.  But when it comes to the actual (and technical) execution of his interesting ideas, his films leave much to be desired.

Forster hops from genre to genre and from subject to subject, including his impersonally helmed and overall mediocre James Bond effort, “Quantum of Solace,” which was two notches below “Casino Royale.” Hence, the unpredictable nature of his career and uneven quality of his various films, ranging from the good ones, such as the 2004 Johnny Depp starrer, “Finding Neverland,” for which he was Oscar-nominated,  to such disappointing work as “Stay.”  Placed within this range are so-so films like “Monster’s Ball,” for which Halle Berry won undeservedly the Best Actress Oscar (Sissy Spacek should have won), “The Kite Runner,” and “Stranger Than Fiction.”

And now comes “Machine Gun Preacher,” a biopic of a relatively unknown man, Sam Childers (still alive), a former drug-dealing criminal who underwent a remarkable transformation, from a lifestyle defined by senseless violence and lack of self-esteem, to a way of life, shaped by his unexpected calling as the savior of kidnapped and orphaned children in the beleaguered, war-torn Sudan.

World-premiering at the Toronto Film Fest, “Machine Gun Preacher” will be released theatrically on Sep 23, 2011.  Likley to divide critics, due to its uneven artistic quality, the movies should do reasonably well at the box-office, testing (among other things) the real bankability and star status of Gerard Butler, who has never carried a picture on his solid shoulders alone.

Excellent with his choice of cast and thorotugh work with actors, Forster was smart in casting Gerard Butler (still best known for the thrilling historical actioner “300”), who delivers a searing and provocative performance as Childers, the impassioned founder of the Angels of East Africa rescue organization.

With few exceptions, Butler has mostly made bad or mediocre pictures, including some silly romantic comedies.  It’s therefore a pleasure to report that in “Machine Gun Preacher” Butler plays his richest, most complex, most challenging role to date, rendering an intense and compelling performance that elevates the film way above his dramatic limitations and undistinguished (occasionally pedestrian) direction.

While I admire the film’s non-judgmental approach, Forster’s strategy lacks a discernible POV; it’s not clear what he actually thinks of Childers, his old/new identity, and his various actions.  Lack of distinct perspective and middlebrow sensibility should not be confused with genuine ambiguity.  “Machine Gun Preacher” is not an ambiguous, open-ended film, like “Taxi Driver.”

As the (bad) title indicates, “Machine Gun Preacher” is both morally confused and dramatically incohesive. Indeed, it gives the impression that Forster and his scribe have not figured out exactly what kind of film they wanted to make, in in what specific style to tell  a stor that’s nothing short of being an original, mesmerizing tale.

A former biker-gang member Sam Childers makes the life-changing decision to go to East Africa to help repair homes destroyed by civil war.  Upon arrival, he is outraged by witnessing the horrors inflicted on the region’s innocent citizens, especially the young, vulnerable children.

Stubborn and firm to a fault , he disregards the warnings of his more experienced aide workers, and decides to establish an orphanage in the midst of the territory controlled by the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA), a renegade militia that forces children to become soldiers–young machine killers.

Moreover, for Sam Childers, it is not enough to shelter the LRA’s intended victims. Determined to save as many lives as possible, he leads dangerous missions deep into enemy territory to retrieve kidnapped children.  His goal is to restore a semblance of peace to their lives, a process that’s vastly rewarding for them and for himself.

The screenplay, credited to Jason Keller, unfolds as a chronicle of an ordinary man, who wills himself to become extraordinary by rescuing over a thousand orphans from starvation, disease and enslavement.

The movie refuses to judge or even evaluate Childer’s unorthodox methods of saving lives.  Though unapologetic, Childers himself raises the question of whether or not it’s “right” for a man of God to have a gun.  It would have been more interesting if Forster and Keller illuminated the controversial hero and his controversial methods, rather than just describe them.

He seems to have molded his personality on men of God who were warriors and soldiers.  And when pushed to explain his motivation, he offers: “I’m not going to say that everything I do is right, but if somebody took your child and I said I could get your child back, what would you say then?”

I have no doubts that the real-life Sam Childers is far more interesting and complex than the way that he is constructed in this simple, formulatic biopic, and that another director, perhaps non-white or more courageous, would have made a picture that’s both more truthful to the facts and yet more intriguingly cinematic.

In the end, what’s really fascinating about “Machine Gun Preacher” is the story itself and the man at its center, who’s both a dangerous psychopath and angelic saint. As for Forster’s picture, it’s decidedly flawed, giving the impression of being too removed, too non-committal, too conforming to the Hollywood  biopic strictures, too burdened with the need to please and to inspire.