Starring: Gerard Butler, Michelle Monaghan, Michael Shannon
Directed by:  Marc Forster (“Stranger Than Fiction”)
Written by:  Jason Keller (“Big Shot: Confessions of a Campus Bookie”)

When you hear the title “Machine Gun Preacher” paired with the phrase “starring Gerard Butler,” you probably imagine some pulpy, mindless B-movie wherein Scottish beefcake Butler plays a squared-jawed man of God, automatic weapon in hand, turning to righteous violence as a last resort in an effort to protect, I don’t know, some poor villagers or something. And you’d be right, except instead of “pulpy, mindless B-movie” it’s actually “drama based on a true story” that also features numerous people leaping away dramatically from RPG explosions.

Butler stars as Sam Childers, a low-life biker/drug dealer/all-around criminal just released from prison for charges unknown. Despite giving him some brief post-slammer car sex, Sam’s wife Lynn (Michelle Monaghan) immediately becomes the target of his rage after he learns she’s stopped stripping and found God. Sam storms out of the trailer and hooks up with old friend/partner in crime Donnie (Michael Shannon). They use a little heroin, rob a crack house at gun point, and speed around town while simultaneously shooting up. It’s during this drug-fueled joyride that they decide to pick up a hitchhiker. Not surprisingly, he turns out to be a stabbin’ hobo and his knife is soon at Donnie’s throat. Sam distracts the bum and ends up turning the blade on him, leaving the drifter for dead on the side of the road.

Nearly killing a man ends up being the last straw for Sam. He begins attending church with Lynn and their young daughter, and a baptism sends him down a path toward redemption. Sam sets about making an honest living, starting his own construction business, building his own modest church and rescuing Donnie from the clutches of drugs and alcohol. When a visiting pastor speaks to the congregation about the struggles of orphans in Sudan, Sam takes a new mission and jets off to Africa, finding more than he bargained for and transforming from missionary to mercenary in the process.

Despite being based on a true story, director Marc Forster (“Quantam of Solace”) never elevates the material to the realm of believability, what with Butler and his good looks and ripped physique looking nothing like a drugged up biker, or a scene featuring Butler’s character blowing a hole in the floor of his trailer with a shotgun and using his body as a shield to save his family from a tornado. And any mildly affecting drama the movie stumbles upon is always undone by Butler blasting away bad guys in the next scene Rambo-style, complete with headband. “Machine Gun Preacher” strives to be an action movie with a message. Too bad that message gets mowed down in a hail of gunfire.

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