Sam Childers is a badass junkie biker who hits rock bottom after a prison stint, finds God, and heads over to Sudan to provide for orphaned children. If he sounds like the product of an overactive imagination, guess again.
The small-town Pennsylvanian Childers provides Gerard Butler with his showiest role yet—and that’s taking into account his turns as the Phantom of the Opera and the King of Sparta. Even during this biopic’s most absurd moments—do hillbillies actually identify themselves as such?—he’s terrific, conveying gentle and brutal equally well. And he receives strong support from Michael Shannon, as his partner in debauchery who doesn’t have as easy a time cleaning up his act; Michelle Monaghan, as his dreamily supportive ex-stripper wife, who feels less abandoned than their daughter when he’s off saving the world; and most memorably, Souleymane Sy Savane, as his loyal sidekick in Africa.
Like director Marc Forster’s career, Machine Gun Preacher is a bit schizophrenic, its tones shifting drastically from intensely violent to nauseatingly inspirational. But even when it resorts to overemphatic repetition—there are only so many times we need to see Childers happening upon a new group of kids to rescue—trying to decide whether he is a virtuous do-gooder or a self-styled mercenary who embraces violence as readily as his opponents is never less than compelling.