Machine Gun Preacher (2011)

2015 #5
Marc Forster | 124 mins | TV | 2.35:1 | USA / English, Arabic & Acholi | 15 / R

Machine Gun PreacherBetween the mega-hits of Quantum of Solace and World War Z, Marc Forster directed this poorly-received ultra-flop. It’s based on the true story of Sam Childers (Gerard Butler), a drug-addicted violence-prone biker thug, who finds God, goes legit as a construction worker, travels to war-torn Sudan as part of a Christian mission, and ends up becoming obsessed with trying to save kids there. His old skills begin to come to the fore as he has to battle local militia to protect his work, earning him the titular nickname.

As a film, it feels like a true story, but in a bad way: poorly structured, unfocused and, as a result, sluggish and awkwardly paced. Subplots meander around, coming and going at will, contributing very little to the overall effect. Some people get annoyed when movies change the facts of history to suit their purpose, but it’s done for a reason: this isn’t a documentary about what actually happened, it’s a narrative fiction inspired by it. You don’t have to betray the spirit of the truth even, just make it function as a story: focus on the relevant parts, rather than just tossing in every event; structure said events with a rising scale of action, rather than tossing it together willy-nilly with barely an ending to reach.

Great white saviourThe problem with the last point is that, in real life, Sam is still over there, still doing the same thing, while conflicts rage on. But this is a film — you need to find some kind of conclusion. The makers have tried, but its an incredibly half-arsed climax; less a resolution to the entire story and more Sam having learnt one lesson from something that went wrong a little earlier.

Forster’s direction is uninteresting; strikingly workmanlike, even. Despite earning several major awards nominations for Finding Neverland and employing some interesting visual tricks for Stranger Than Fiction, his Bourne-copying Bond film and the standard blockbuster-ness of his zombie epic perhaps suggest he is a little bit of a gun-for-hire. Thematically, he wants to have his cake and eat it: the film both condemns Sam’s violent ways, very nearly almost touching on an interesting theme of him actually being completely unchanged (he’s just found a better/more acceptable outlet for his violence); but it backs out of that pretty speedily, because it also wants him to be a hero, ultimately trying to present that he is as its final summary.

The film on the whole is too preachy, both about Christianity and the situation in Africa. It doesn’t feel like a professional medium-budget movie made by experienced filmmakers with a name cast, but instead like one of those specialist Christian movies, Preacher(gun)manmashed together with a polemical charity documentary about Africa, and then with some Rambo action sequences grafted on for good measure. Each of those genres manage to find their own audiences — usually ones so interested in the topic that they’ll switch off any critical filters they may (or may not) possess — but I’m not sure there’s much crossover between them, and the combination certainly doesn’t work for anyone with taste.

The real-life story is undoubtedly interesting, and the problems in Sudan are undoubtedly troubling, but that doesn’t automatically confer quality on a fictionalised film. It feels like the fact the tale was fundamentally interesting and Important led a lot of people involved to coast, like it was too good a narrative not to automatically produce a good film. Unfortunately, that’s not how moviemaking works, and while they’ve not produced a bad film per se, it is a strikingly mediocre one.

2 out of 5

Machine Gun Preacher is on Film4 tonight at 11:10pm.

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