10 November 2011


Despite my prejudice against screen biopics, I found a fair bit to admire in this adaptation of Sam Childers' memoirs, Another Man's War. Of course, it's amped up to the extent that Childers is played by Gerard Butler, who doesn't so much throw his arms around the world, as exercise his right to bear arms around the world. Most importantly though, its tone is dramatic first, and action-packed afterwards.

So, with the slightly less serviceable title of Machine Gun Preacher, Another Man's War is brought to the screen, beginning with Sam being released from prison. He's an alcoholic criminal who rides around on his motorbike, robbing places and neglecting his family. However, his wife Lynn has found Jesus while he was behind bars, and a pivotal event leads him to convert too. Sam's new-found conscience is prickled, when he learns of how civil war in the Sudan is affecting children, and he ships over there to join in with aid workers, and eventually winds up having a go in the war, too.

Director Marc Forster's previous film was the most recent James Bond film, the unfairly maligned Quantum of Solace, which admittedly had problems in the way that its action was shot and edited. Playing to his strengths, this is closer to Forster's previous form, on The Kite Runner. It's a film with a socio-political angle to it, but one in which Gerard Butler remains beholden to shooting people, blowing things up and shouting. But as I'm constantly saying about the better action cinema of today, isn't it so much better when the violence actually means something?

If Machine Gun Preacher only has one thing going for it, it's the focus on Sam Childers as a character, and the chance that this affords Butler, to act in a worthy role with a performance that is free of presumption. Butler evokes sympathy with the character, while also excelling as the short-tempered bumbag that Sam is at the outset of this story. The film shies away from certain dramatic opportunities, while inflating plot devices such as Michael Shannon's character, Donnie. As it turns out, the character is an amalgam of many different people in the real Childers' life, and that shows in the film, at least as much as to have made me think Donnie must be a fictional addition on first viewing.

It's not all missed opportunities, but I can't say that the opportunities that it does hit upon are resolved in a way that is entirely satisfactory, either. Needling quibbles with Sam's seemingly selfless humanitarianism are present throughout, but never really become prominent in the way they might if screenwriter Jason Keller were able to take more artistic licence with the story. For instance, the amount of time for which he abandons his family is only signified by a jarring change in the actress playing his daughter, from infancy to "Dad, can we get a limo for my formal?" This means that Sam goes from neglecting his family for a life of crime, to neglecting his family for the sake of war orphans. As I've said many times, the naturalistic way, in this case, leaving threads like those unfulfilled, isn't always the cinematic way.

As with The Help, it competently manages with the fact that it must portray great injustice without reaching any great final sense of gratification against the wrongdoers involved. Sam Childers did not single-handedly liberate Uganda, but the film ends in a place that is satisfactory for the character. In the things it does right, I also found it easy to forgive the potential hypocrisy, of a $30m Hollywood film that lampoons privileged people who won't give generously to help stop this injustice. It's neither wish-fulfilment for bleeding heart peace campaigners, nor a supposedly uplifting right-wing gore-gasm (such as Rambo.) Some will wonder then, how to classify it, but I don't think I was too perturbed by the fact that it isn't be pegged one way or the other.

Despite that title, Machine Gun Preacher is rarely exploitative, and serves as a well-reasoned if clumsily assembled action drama with a yearning socio-political conscience. It goes without saying that it features a career-best performance from Gerard Butler, even if that's to the detriment of almost everyone else in the supporting cast. The adaptation might lack courage in some parts, but its conviction was strong enough to overpower my cynicism. It's no crowd-pleaser, but it's sensitive and sincere its protagonist's motivation without lapsing into hero worship or jingoism.

Machine Gun Preacher is now showing in cinemas nationwide.
If you've seen Machine Gun Preacher, why not share your comments below?

I'm Mark the mad prophet, and until next time, don't watch anything I wouldn't watch.

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