American Sam Childers (Gerard Butler), a former drug-dealing criminal and ex-biker-gang member, finds an unexpected new calling – savior of hundreds of kidnapped and orphaned East African children. When Childers heads to East Africa to help repair homes destroyed by civil war, he's outraged by the horrors faced by the region’s populace, especially the children. Sam decides to break ground for an orphanage in the middle of territory controlled by the brutal Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA), a renegade militia that forces youngsters to become soldiers. As well as providing shelter for the LRA’s intended victims, Childers leads armed missions deep into enemy territory to retrieve kidnapped children.

1.5
Butler misfires as a man of God and violence.

The curse of Gerard Butler strikes again in this lumbering, repulsively violent and occasionally mawkish drama based on the true story of a self-styled 'hillbilly from Pennsylvania" who found God and risked his life to build and defend an orphanage in Sudan.

Butler is hopelessly miscast in Machine Gun Preacher, which bombed in the US in September and is getting a token cinema release in Australia via Roadshow en route to DVD stores.

So yet another dud for the Scottish-born actor following The Bounty Hunter, Law Abiding Citizen, RocknRolla and P.S. I Love You. Indeed his sole big hit since 300 was the mediocre rom-com The Ugly Truth.

It’s a rare blemish in the otherwise distinguished career of director Marc Forster, with none of the finesse, style or emotional resonance of his Monster’s Ball, Finding Neverland or The Kite Runner or the commercial savvy of Quantum of Solace.

After a horrific opening depicting the massacre of innocent villagers in Southern Sudan in 2003, the narrative switches to Pennsylvania several years earlier as Butler’s muscle bound, tattooed Sam Childers is released from prison.

He’s greeted by his wife Lynn (Michelle Monaghan), who celebrates his homecoming by bonking him in their car parked alongside a freeway, a tacky scene. Sam quickly reverts to his bad old ways, abusing Lynn for giving up her job as a stripper (she’d become a Christian while he was in stir), holding up a crack house with his junkie mate Donnie (Michael Shannon) and shooting up in a bathroom.

Sam agrees to accompany Lynn and their daughter Paige to their 'happy clappy" evangelical church. When the preacher asks the sinners to come forward, Sam reluctantly steps up and is baptised. But why? No doubt the real Childers had his reasons but Jason Keller’s screenplay fails to provide any explanation and Butler has a limited arsenal of emotions and expressions to draw on. Hence the character’s Damascus-like conversion from a violent, amoral villain into a sensitive, caring, sober guy and loving husband and father is hard to swallow.

He starts his own construction business and rescues Donnie from a crack house. After a Ugandan missionary speaks at his church, Sam decides to visit that country. 'I like what they’re doing down there, it’s a good cause," is the only rationale he offers Lynn.

In Uganda he meets Sudanese freedom fighter Deng (Souleymane Sy Savane), who provides a brief history of the civil war and atrocities that had blighted his country for several decades.

After witnessing a boy being blown up by a landmine, one of a number of extremely gruesome scenes, Sam resolves to build an orphanage in Sudan and a church – 'a place for sinners like me" – in Pennsylvania.

Several clashes with Sudan’s vicious Lord's Resistance Army aren’t particularly exciting or well staged, although Sam’s encounters with child soldiers inject a rare element of poignancy. His fundraising efforts and sermonising at his church back home make for dull viewing.

The last section is marginally more interesting as there are strains on his family life, Sam seems in danger of reverting to his unhinged past and he angrily confronts Donnie.

His Rambo-like behaviour in the Sudan is morally questionable: sure he has a right to protect himself and the hundreds of kids in his care, but he pushes the boundaries.

Butler brings little depth and few nuances to the character. As a bad ass he glowers, bellows and cusses. As a brave fighter and savior he’s less convincing, given to brooding, bouts of anger and looking determined and crestfallen.

The film was shot partly in South Africa, which raises the possibility that at least some of the local kids who are featured were being exploited for a film that might have had noble intentions but fails on almost every level.

Details

MA15+
2 hours 7 min
In Cinemas 01 December 2011,

Genres