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Movie Review: Butler’s performance highlights ‘Preacher’

Gerard Butler gives it his all as the title character in “Machine Gun Preacher,” a drama based on the true story of biker-turned-humanitarian Sam Childers.

It’s a performance that’s gruff and defiant, volatile and raging and even tender at times — the kind of role Mel Gibson might have played 20 years ago. Childers lived a life of drugs and crime until he found Jesus, then traveled to Sudan to build an orphanage for the youngest victims of the ravaged African nation’s civil war.

But even though director Marc Forster’s film is rooted in actual events, it’s hard to shake the uncomfortable sensation of watching yet another story that glorifies the white savior. Aside from Souleymane Sy Savane as a rebel soldier named Deng who serves as Sam’s friend, guide and much-needed calming influence, the black characters who prompt Sam to sacrifice everything and put himself in danger feel more like ideas than fleshed-out humans.

Forster clearly means well in bringing such an inspiring story to the screen, and he does depict this place vividly — both its natural beauty and its brutality. As he proved with his breakout film “Monster’s Ball,” he’s not one to shy away from showing the uglier elements of human nature. Actually, some of the scenes at the start of the film, when Sam is hitting his lowest point, are just as startling as those that occur later on.

But Forster makes some awkward tonal shifts between the violence in Africa and the increasing instability at home in rural Pennsylvania, where Sam’s ex-stripper wife, Lynn (Michelle Monaghan), and their daughter, Paige (Madeline Carroll), are waiting for him. Michael Shannon offers some intriguing moments, as always, as Sam’s former running buddy, but ultimately doesn’t get enough to do.

He and Sam both undergo a transformation from shooting up in a biker-bar bathroom to shouting their love of the Lord that feels too swift, too painless. You wonder whether Sam misses his wild days, whether he struggles to stay clean. Then again, as he becomes more driven to raise more money and save more children — and as he becomes disillusioned by the indifference of those around him back home — it’s clear he’s simply traded one addiction for another.

By the end “Machine Gun Preacher” comes full-circle, depicting Sam as being just as screwed-up as he was at the beginning, albeit with a higher calling that’s hard to argue with. That feels a bit too tidy, too. The real-life Sam Childers, who’s still working in Sudan, is probably more complicated than this.

“Machine Gun Preacher,” a Relativity Media release, is rated R for violent content including disturbing images, language, some drug use and a scene of sexuality. Running time: 123 minutes. Two stars out of four.

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