09/23/2011 08:31 am ET Updated Nov 23, 2011

Movie Review: Machine Gun Preacher

It's hard to pigeonhole a director like Marc Forster, who has directed films as varied as Monster's Ball, Quantum of Solace, Stranger than Fiction and The Kite Runner.

So maybe Forster should get a pass for Machine Gun Preacher, a generically insulting action movie with a hokey script and manipulative story-telling.


Apparently based on a true story, Machine Gun Preacher has a title that would fit one of those ultra-gory grindhouse movies that Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez are so fond of. In fact, it's the tale of Sam Childers (Gerard Butler), who gets out of prison in the late 1990s. A biker and drug addict, he comes home to a wife (Michelle Monaghan) who has kicked drugs, given up stripping and found Jesus. "You may have found Jesus - but He ain't found me," Sam snorts, and heads out to get into trouble.

Before long, he's back to slamming heroin with one of his longtime riding buddies, Donnie (Michael Shannon), and robbing heroin dealers. But one night, when they pick up a hitchhiker who threatens them with a knife, Sam grabs the knife, stabs the rider several times and tumbles him out the door into a snowbank.

The experience apparently is enough to push Sam to go straight. He goes to church with his wife, accepts the Lord into his life and goes to work doing construction. Before long, he's got his own contracting business and is an active and happy member of his local church.

Then he accepts an invitation from a missionary to help build a church in Africa - and once he's there, he's introduced to the myriad problems facing the people in Sudan. Rebel forces regularly raid villages and kill the residents, creating giant pool of orphans (as well as forcing children to become murderous soldiers).

Sam is so moved by what he sees that he goes back to the U.S. and builds his own church. Then he uses it to start raising money to build an orphanage in Sudan. Before long, he's spending more time in Africa than at home - and when the rebels start targeting his compound, he takes up a machine gun and fights them himself

And that's it. He's fighting a bloodthirsty foe in Africa and indifference at home. But the dramatics are minimal in either locale because the writing by Jason Keller is cliché-riddled and the action haphazard. Butler, sporting a minimal Southern accent ("I'm just a Pennsylvania hillbilly," he explains), strides through these scenes like a stick of dynamite looking for the match to light his fuse. There are no shadings to his character - he's bad, then he's good, then he's better. And always tough.

But what he's not is interesting. This is cookie-cutter movie-making, with each dramatic beat telegraphed long before it hits the screen. Indeed, Machine Gun Preacher might have been better as a parody - except that it's already a parody of itself.

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