It’s hard not to be cynical, and this is part of the problem with bringing such a powerful and noble real-life story adaptation to the screen that the real hero’s good intentions behind the film character can be unfairly subjugated with all the dramatics and action – perhaps such a story is always better told as a documentary for greater, fuller impact.
That’s not to say that the filmmakers do not have the best intentions to heart with the source material – they do, perhaps too much so, as the film tries shamelessly to twang every conceivable heartstring that it’s hard not to be moved. However, is this only because of the reconstructed African travesties that prick our conscious for greater, accelerated change in the affected regions for a brief moment after watching, making an inevitable and potent wake-up call, rather than the film itself being anything remarkable? Perhaps the whiff of American, Bible-bashing arrogance that can cure the world’s wrongs overnight fuels the somewhat bad taste this film sometimes leaves?
On the plus side, Gerard Butler has been suitably picked for his rugged ‘manly’ appeal to portray Childers, which sends his chequered career path off on a different, more meaningful tangent this time. If anyone was cast to lead the vigilante war against the Sudanese LRA rebels hell-bent on turning each child into a mini fighting machine against their will, it’s Butler – just swap the Spartan’s primitive weaponry for a shooter, and you have your fearless King Leonidas back in action in a present-day role.
Admittedly, we aren’t supposed to like Childers that much pre-Godly intervention, but there is actually very little to grow fonder of him afterwards either. He makes gargantuan mistakes with his real family back home – his long-suffering wife, Lynn, played by Michelle Monaghan and his daughter, Paige (Madeline Carroll) – abandoning them and his struggling best friend, well played by Michael Shannon. But even though Childers is only human, what the film lacks is a reflective moment from him to put everything into perspective; all we get is a pigheaded Childers continually roaming the African plains for lost kids or preaching like some maniacal sect leader at his home-made church in the US.
Monaghan does the best she can in an underdeveloped role that never attempts to explain the greater cost Childers’ double life is having on her existence. Even though the real-life couple may well have stayed together, the film’s character simply stands by her man without so much as a defining climax to clear the air, short of opening an empty safe to show the delusional Childers that all the cash has gone. There is no satisfactory, meaningful resolution either, just a sense of everything being so-so, and even the clichéd addition of an uncooperative Sudanese boy looking for his lost brother who suddenly speaks perfect English to give Childers some great wisdom falls fairly flat in the end.
Although perfectly watchable, in terms of Butler’s ferociously determined performance, Machine Gun Preacher plays a little too safe and skips over the real significance of finding God then oversimplifies the ugly and complex situation in Sudan. What was needed from the filmmakers was a greater insight into the dramatic transformation a person goes through in both respects, rather than rushing to put Childers’ accomplishments on a pedestal, however deserved, while packing in the action sequences to secure a wider audience.