Originally published Thursday, September 29, 2011 at 3:03 PM

Movie review

'Machine Gun Preacher': goodwill gone amok

A movie review of "Machine Gun Preacher," a well-intended but overly earnest drama starring Gerard Butler as a real-life former criminal who established a rescue mission for Sudanese orphans while taking up arms against insurgents.

Special to The Seattle Times

Movie review 2 stars

'Machine Gun Preacher,' with Gerard Butler, Michelle Monaghan, Michael Shannon, Kathy Baker. Directed by Marc Forster, from a screenplay by Jason Keller. 127 minutes. Rated R for violent content including disturbing images, language, some drug use and a scene of sexuality. Several theaters.

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Well-meaning but overripe with sincerity and strained drama, "Machine Gun Preacher" is the oddball story of Sam Childers, the real-life former biker, drug addict and criminal who founded a rescue operation for orphans in war-torn Southern Sudan.

Gerard Butler delivers a self-congratulatory, subtlety-free performance as Childers, who, at least in this would-be prestige picture by director Marc Forster ("Quantum of Solace"), is the kind of saint you want to keep at arm's length.

Introduced as an explosive ex-con who tries to bully his wife, Lynn (Michelle Monaghan), into returning to her old job as a stripper, Butler's Sam sees the light during a church service and turns his life around.

Sam becomes a good husband and father, and goes on a Christian mission building houses in Uganda. But while on a visit to Sudan, he learns how warlords of the Lord's Resistance Army wipe out villages and turn kids into child soldiers and sex slaves.

Inspired, Sam establishes a home and school for Sudanese children in the heart of the danger zone. But the twist is that he personally takes up arms against insurgents, a God's Rambo with no patience for government soldiers who strictly play defense.

It's easy to see how any filmmaker would practically salivate over Childers' story. He's like a comic-book hero, equally sacred and profane, who deserves his own hyper-real action movie.

Except, even better, he lives in the real world. Going back and forth between Africa and the U.S., one half of Sam is a born-again family man who rescues a friend (Michael Shannon, woefully underused) from drugs and builds a church with his own hands.

But the other half is innately reckless, drawn to Africa as an opportunity to steer chaos. Sam's duality ought to make for some interesting storytelling and a fascinating, conflicted character.

But Forster and Butler overplay that conflict, turning "Preacher" into a portrait of goodwill gone amok. Obsessed with his orphans, Sam loses perspective, alienates everyone and becomes all but dysfunctional.

Maybe that's how things went down for the real Sam Childers, but it's a drag to watch, with no real payoff, on screen.

Tom Keogh:

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