MOVIE REVIEW: 'Machine Gun Preacher' might be a bit too preachy





*Earlier this month, director/leading lady Vera Farminga released "Higher Ground," a movie about religion with elements of comedy that didn't work. Director Marc Forster has just done the same thing with "Machine Gun Preacher" but replaced the comedy with sex, drugs, guns and lots of dead Africans. For a completely different set of reasons, it doesn't work either.

As with "Higher Ground," the first 15 minutes of "Preacher" is the best part of the movie and provides more than enough meaty story to transfix viewers. A man with a history of violent, illegal and amoral behavior sees the light, corrects himself and dedicates his life to saving and protecting the downtrodden. It couldn't be more inspirational.

It's even better that it (well, some of it, we're told) actually happened. It opens with Sam Childers (Gerard Butler) getting released from a Pennsylvania prison in the early '90s for crimes that are never disclosed. Before the credits are over, Sam finishes having sex in a Pinto with his girlfriend and eventual wife Lynn (Michele Monaghan). An ex-stripper who has already straightened out her life, Lynn encourages but never pushes Sam to do the same.

Sam would rather still hang out at the local biker bar, down boilermakers, shoot heroin and stab hitchhikers with his sycophant buddy Donnie (Michael Shannon), all the while being verbally abusive to Lynn, his daughter (Madeline Carroll) and mother (Kathy Baker). Sam is not a nice guy and Butler does a great job (at first) establishing him as an antihero we don't like or respect.

Sam's transformation from evil to angelic is immediate and practically gives us metaphorical whiplash. Retaining the same type of grandstanding, vein-popping vitriol and take-no-prisoners approach exhibited at the start, Sam becomes the spiritual equivalent of an ex-smoker or recovering alcoholic. If you're not on board with his laser-focused mind-set and mission, you're pond scum and that often includes his own family.

Sam's sole cause is in saving orphaned children in Sudan. Again, very admirable but he goes about it with a sledgehammer level of finesse. He travels between Sudan and the U.S. with head-spinning frequency and instead of asking why does he do it, we say, how can he afford to do it? Ultra-rich celebrity activists don't keep this kind of travel schedule and it is a point screenwriter Jason Keller completely glosses over. Forster and film editor Matt Chesse don't help by jumping choppily from one scene to the next without any transitional bridges.

In addition to the schizophrenic tone and scattershot approach, the filmmakers offer the viewer few opportunities to relate to (or like) Sam. Going from being a headstrong ne'er-do-well to an equally brutish do-gooder isn't that much of a stretch. Sam has his heart in the right place but his execution remains off-putting for the duration. Very few people get things accomplished with such a fire-breathing approach.

According to the epitaph, Childers is very much alive and still doing what he did when the patience-testing, overlong film ends. After watching what he did, when and how he did it, you might find yourself recalling the Billy Joel lyric "I'd rather laugh with the sinners than die with the saints" from "Only the Good Die Young." Sam the sinner was no picnic but he and the movie were much more believable, easier to take and relate to when he was and the filmmakers weren't force-feeding us with gag-inducing, spiritually-cleansing Castor oil. (Relativity Media)