Based on the real-life Sam Childers, Machine Gun Preacher cross cuts between Sam's home in Pennsylvania and southern Sudan, between Sam emoting over the traumatized orphans and Sam enraged and fighting the rebels. The story has inspirational, humanitarian appeal; the film falls flat on its face. Blame the script and the acting for the abysmal failure to translate the potential to compelling fare.
The problems begin with the acting. None of it is very good, but most responsible and disappointing is Gerard Butler. As Childers, the anchor of events, Butler gives a wooden performance lacking in complexity or nuances. He reflects director Forster's apparent inability to decide the proper tone or focus. Is this an action film, a home drama, or a heartwarming journey of self-transformation? Known for the James Bond film Quantum of Solace and Monster's Ball, director Forster has shown skill at various approaches. But in Machine Gun Preacher as he tries to bridge and merge disparate genres, the film ends up conflicted and confused. It's no Hotel Rwanda which found the heart and soul of such inhumanity in subtle and profound ways never achieved here.
Contributing to the problems, reliance on an episodic structure results in abbreviated scenes that short circuit emotional involvement because they don't build with character development or revelation. Incidents provide no more than snapshots, incessantly keeping the viewer on the outside looking in. Interjected for effect, several horrendous atrocities get equally short shrift, making their inclusion feel gratuitous instead of integral to the plot. As troublesome, the supremely confident, competent Childers comes across as a white savior come to Africa. The extraordinary emphasis on Sam insults the local population when many individuals have done so much. Here they're no more than supporting players in Childers showcase.
Particularly disappointing because of the tragic and continuing problems in Sudan, Machine Gun Preacher betrays its misguided efforts even with its title. What a shame that it doesn't live up to the importance of its subject. At a Landmark Cinema.