Sam Childers (Gerard Butler) is a Philadelphia ex-con with severe anger-management issues. Just released from prison, he returns home to a familiar pattern of substance abuse and armed robbery. His wife, Lynn (Michelle Monaghan), a former stripper, has in the meantime become a devout Christian during Sam's incarceration. Contemptuous of her do-goodism but sinking fast, he agrees to attend church with her and is forever transformed.
"Machine Gun Preacher," based on Childers's real-life exploits, sets up a fascinating story and then proceeds to make it increasingly less fascinating. Now a successful construction company owner, Childers makes a relief trip to Uganda, where he detours into neighboring Sudan and witnesses the atrocities of the Lord's Resistance Army – a renegade militia that often turned children into rifle-toting soldiers by forcing them to kill their own parents.
Soon he is providing shelter for terrorized Sudanese children. He builds them an orphanage and a schoolhouse. By comparison, his life back in America, where he has also become a lay preacher, loses its luster. He is hooked, obsessively so, on saving the Sudanese children, even if this means becoming a gun-toting hellion himself.
Are Childers's exploits genuinely humanitarian or just an adrenaline-fueled substitute for his earlier violence? This is the fascination of the story, but director Marc Forster and screenwriter Jason Keller take the easy way out by turning Childers into a Bible-thumping Rambo. Just because the Childers of this movie is not, to put it mildly, introspective, is no reason why the filmmakers had to be equally dense. Butler doesn't seem in any hurry to provide what the filmmakers lack. He might as well be playing, well, Rambo. There's even a scene where he wades into the fray, machine gun in hand, wearing a black head scarf, just in case we missed the connection.
Because Childers is so one-dimensional, the film is particularly open to charges of bwana worship. The vast majority of socially conscious Hollywood movies set in Africa have featured whites center stage – "Cry Freedom" was probably the most egregious example – and this one is no exception. Even the Sudanese orphans, whose plight is, after all, the film's reason for being, are presented as a grievous backdrop to Childers's calisthenics. They are poster-art children, framed to elicit our maximum sympathy – as if we wouldn't respond to their plight otherwise.
If you stick this film out to the end credits, the real Sam Childers poses a question for the audience: "Does it matter how I bring them home?" What he is saying is: If your own loved ones were kidnapped, tortured, or raped, would you care if I used extreme violence to rescue them? This is a legitimate and troubling question and, in a more thoughtful movie, it would have been the starting point, not the endpoint, for the drama, especially one dealing with a supposedly God-fearing Christian. Grade: C (Rated R for violent content, including disturbing images, language, some drug use, and a scene of sexuality.)