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.

24: Redemption (2008)

Extended Edition

2008 #86
Jon Cassar | 98 mins | DVD | 15

24: RedemptionRemember the ubiquitous Writer’s Strike in the US? It must be about a year ago now, but its effects are still being felt — Dr Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog, Joss Whedon’s rule-breaing internet musical, made during the strike, is about to hit region-free DVD in the US (albeit on DVD-R and only from Amazon.com); plenty of second-year shows are getting canned, probably because their truncated first years didn’t allow time to get decent audiences (that’s one excuse anyway); and 24’s seventh season, kicking off in January 2009, is a year late. Which allowed them to make this in the meantime.

The setup is simple: Jack Bauer’s trekking round the world, currently holed up with an ex-army buddy (played by the ever-excellent Robert Carlyle) in the African nation of Sangal where said buddy has set up a school. Yes, Jack Bauer is living a life of peace. But then Bad Men turn up wanting the kids for child soldiers, and within the hour they’re attempting a military coup — this is still 24 remember, the action all takes place “in real time”. What’s Jack to do? Why, return to his old One Man Army self, of course — if he can’t stop the coup, he sure as hell can save those kids! Meanwhile, it’s inauguration day for America’s new female (black? 24’s been there and done that — twice) President…

For a Fox action series, off screens for almost 18 months and undoubtedly designed as a starting point for new viewers, Redemption (not that that title’s seen on screen) has a surprisingly slow build up. That’s no bad thing — this is a story after all, not a 90-minute shoot-out — but there are times when one feels it should get a wriggle on. This is likely where most, if not all, of this extended version’s new material was added. There’s almost 15 minutes added to the running time here, though some is surely due to a 5-minute credit crawl that must be much longer than the TV version’s. Having not seen the broadcast edit I can’t comment on what new scenes, shots or lines are added, but there’s no greater violence or thematic density than 24 usually produces so I imagine what was cut was cut for time alone.

That said, Redemption certainly tackles its fair share of issues — primarily, the use of child soldiers, and the US involvement (or lack of) in African genocides. It’s certainly admirable and worthwhile for such a popular series to bring these important issues to the attention of a mass audience who might otherwise ignore, or at least not be aware, of them, but they’re still included in a “mainstream American action series” way — that’s to say, they’re ultimately a reason for a shoot-out. There’s also some subtle political commentary, such as the UN Peacekeeper stationed at the school being a coward who runs away at the first sign of violence… and then betrays them to boot! Of course, just because it’s unsubtle doesn’t make it wrong, but Blood Diamond this is not. Whatever the politics, the action sequences — and, once things get going, there are a few — are all carried out with 24’s usual panache.

Is this a suitable jumping-on point for newcomers? Yes, quite simply. It’s several years since the last season and Jack’s in a very new part of this life. Some old faces crop up and there are some backstory references, but these are more nods for returning fans than anything important. Everything you need to know for this story is contained herein, and fortunately that doesn’t involve great slabs of exposition about previous seasons. On the other hand, it fails as a standalone movie. While the main plot — Jack defends school — is kicked off and wrapped up in the space between the title and the credits, there are several US-based plot threads that aren’t even close to being resolved. These are clearly designed to flow on into season seven — presumably they’re either elements bumped from the early episodes up into the movie, or a fleshing out of information that would’ve just been exposition before.

It’s hard not to conclude that Redemption would’ve been better without the US scenes. They add nothing to the main action in Africa and they’re all quite flatly directed, forcibly reminding you that this is just a TV movie by being worse than most TV these days. Their one true benefit is an ending that juxtaposes the new President’s inauguration speech with the civil war beginning in Sangal, which, consciously or not, underlines the hypocrisy at the heart of America.

As a standard season-opening episode of 24, coming on the back of the weakest-yet sixth season, it may well have earned itself an extra star. Judged as a standalone film, however, I fear it has to be just

3 out of 5

Thinking “but that’s not a film”? Then please have a read of this.