Gerard Butler began his career by playing good-looking, muscular men like King Leonidas in ‘300.’ But too often the parts Butler chose were one-dimensional, like the sexist relationship advice writer who falls in love with Katherine Heigl in ‘The Ugly Truth.’
The same can be said of his performance in 2010’s ‘The Bounty Hunter,’ where he and Jennifer Aniston looked stunning together but we had little reason to care about their relationship.
In the newly-released ‘Machine Gun Preacher,’ Butler plays a burly ex-con who finds Jesus and wants to rebuild his life and help the children of East Africa. And, to Butler’s credit, he pulls off this complex character rather well.
Based on a true story, Gerard Butler plays Sam Childers, a former bike gang member, armed robber and heroin addict. After coming out of prison, Childers discovers his wife (Michelle Monaghan) has found God and considers herself Christian. Childers relapses and, after another crime, realizes that he wants to give religion a try, too. He ends up embracing Christianity and building a church where all the ‘mess-ups’ can come when they want to worship. Childers’ boisterous personality flows into his preaching, and he finds a new way to live his life.
He later goes on a mission trip to Uganda, and while the rest of the crew visits the city he convinces a local (Souleymane Sy Savane) to take him to southern Sudan. In the midst of that country’s civil war, Childers witnesses several heartbreaking sights, from herds of children wandering at night to a child killed by a land mine. The latter scene is so gruesome that several people in the audience, including me, gasped and shed tears.
We see Childers’ humanity come out in Africa, especially in the scene where he defends himself against children who were ‘drafted’ by the Lord’s Resistance Army (L.R.A.). The news of his exploits spreads, and the locals start calling him the “white preacher.”
When Childers returns home to Pennsylvania he starts planning to build an orphanage in southern Sudan. We see Childers struggle to raise money while losing contact with his wife and daughter.
“You love those black babies more than me,” his daughter tells him. It’s a wonderful thing what Childers is doing, but the film questions how much one can devote to an idealistic cause at the expense of one’s own family.
Butler is fantastic as Childers, but as wonderful as he is, we never quite see the reasoning behind the character’s life-altering decisions. Why does he want to pick up a machine gun and donate everything he has toward building an orphanage? Why is he more involved with what’s going on in Africa than his devoted family? The audience never gets clued in to what compels Childers to make these choices. The real Childers deserves a biopic like this, and it’s a very interesting story to tell. However, screenwriter Jason Keller should have better explained why Childers does what he does in order for the story to come full circle.
Despite its flaws,‘Machine Gun Preacher’ gives viewers a new appreciation for Butler’s talents, and I hope we see him in more nuanced roles like this in the future.