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Machine Gun Preacher

This feel-bad, feel-good film about an American in Sudan could use more depth

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Marc Forster's docudrama recounts the life of Somerset County's Sam Childers, a reformed bad-boy biker who re-directs his energies toward saving Sudan's orphaned children. He builds an orphanage with money raised from preaching, and defends it with skills learned from an earlier life of crime.

It's a story that unfolds over more than a decade, and thus suffers from being condensed into a two-hour movie. Rather than present a character study, the film races to hit plot points: Childers bottoming out; finding Jesus; visiting Africa; building an orphanage; killing some bad people; having marital woes; and so on.

Scottish he-man Gerard Butler stars as Childers, the self-described "hillbilly from Pennsylvania," and he tries to fit the leather vest. But he and his co-stars (Michelle Monaghan plays his wife, Michael Shannon his biker buddy) are simply too Hollywood glamorous to really sell their roles as folks beaten down by life. The orphans and child soldiers in Sudan, whom we should really feel for, are simply a collection of unknown wide-eyed children in ill-fitting clothing. (Only one boy gets a story, and while it may be true, Forster presents it in a typically manipulative fashion.)

But while Machine Gun feels scripted, it isn't entirely sanitized. It's rated R, for plenty of profanity and violence. And while horrific acts are part of the Sudanese civil war, the film -- which obviously wants the moral high ground -- gets tangled up depicting "good" and "bad" violence. The film seems to enjoy its Rambo-esque shoot-outs more than it wants to unpack some of the trickier moral and ethical issues. (One aid worker early on chastises Childers for his righteous violence, but the film makes her eat her words.)

The situation in Sudan is a heartbreaking mess, absolutely deserving of world attention and effective intervention. And no one should begrudge Childers the boots-on-the-ground work he does. But for a film to posit that violence can only be met with a different sort of violence -- especially in a part of the world where so many previous outsiders have bungled in their efforts to "save" the natives -- it needs to present arguments that are considerably more thoughtful than the worthy redemption of one "hillbilly from Pennsylvania."

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