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In Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, addicted gang biker Sam Childs (Gerard Butler) is released from prison. Upon arriving home, he learns that his wife, Lynn (Michelle Monaghan), has quit her job as a stripper and converted to Christianity. Upset, Sam quickly reverts to his old ways, falling back into drugs and crime with his friend, Donnie (Michael Shannon), and eventually killing a drifting hitchhiker. Sam is so profoundly affected by the incident, he lets Lynn and his mother convince him to join their church, where he is baptized. Soon, Sam finds a straight job in construction and begins acting as preacher for the church. After being further moved by another preacher from Africa, he decides to visit Northern Uganda and South Sudan many times, where he builds orphanages for the victims of the cruel Lord's Resistance Army (LRA).

Machine Gun Preacher
At first glance, Machine Gun Preacher appears to belong on the marquee with post-modern, Grindhouse-inspired joke movies, like Machete and Hobo with a Shotgun, but closer inspection reveals something of an attempt at a minor prestige picture. Machine Gun Preacher is based on a deeply touching (and ongoing) true story that deserves better coverage and it has been brought to life by an incredibly acclaimed director in Marc Forster. It seems that, based on his previous work, Forster’s ideal version of this story would work as a meaty hunk of soul-crushing melodrama, followed by a sudden rush soul-affirming sentiment. Something like Hotel Rwanda. But heavy-handed morals are often so exhausting and a cheap, silly shoot ‘em up version of recent history would work just as well. The original material probably should be treated with respect, but it has real exploitation appeal. After all, Stallone managed to mix affecting plight and ridiculous violence just fine when he made Rambo a few years ago, proving there’s plenty of raw entertainment value in taking the low road with socially important subject matter. Surprisingly enough, Forster aims to mix the low road with the high road. Sadly, it appears Forster isn’t the man for this particular balancing act and the efforts largely fall short.

Following critical favourites including Monster’s Ball, Finding Neverland and The Kite Runner, Forster found himself lost in Quantum of Solace, the messy second entry in Daniel Craig’s James Bond series. Given a bigger responsibility, Forster proved he was not particularly good with cinematic action and big budget scale. Still, it wasn’t really surprising that his next film, Machine Gun Preacher, would attempt to blend the based-on-a-true-story esteem of his earlier work with the chaotic action of Solace. His action direction really hasn’t gotten much better – it’s still so chaotic and senseless that it’ll give you a headache – but it fits the material, at least in comparison to a Bond flick. He’s also not afraid to earn his R-rating with some really gruesome violence. The frustrating part is that there are glorious moments of clarity and impact within a given sequence, giving a taste of skills learned since Quantum of Solace. The bigger issue is that, tonally, Forster pulls it too far both directions, blindly reveling both in the melodramatic Oscar-bait and the corner-cutting exploitation elements, ensuring that, in the end, neither connect. There’s little rush or fright out of the violence and there’s no good reason to shed tears for what should’ve been arresting emotional payoffs.

Machine Gun Preacher
The problems begin with Jason Keller’s screenplay, which is an awkward knot of fumbling, time-skipping narration and cliché driven dialogue. The early scenes of Childers’ self-destructing before finding Jesus are absolutely terrible and ridiculously heavy-handed to the point of silliness. The brutality has no bite and the eventual salvation carries zero emotional weight. I appreciate the momentum, but don’t see the point in including this stuff when it really has little effect on the bulk of the film’s preferred plotline – that of Childers’ much more interesting adventures in Sudan. It amounts to yet another should-be interesting biopic hampered by the filmmakers’ need to tell more of the story than the film requires. If they’d clipped 35 minutes of fat from the top of their film, Keller and Forster might have at least achieved something similar to Rambo, where the real world cause would’ve been served by the exploitation appeal ( Schindler’s List, in Africa…with a shot gun!), but this is a lump of middle-ground missed opportunity that is somehow both over-indulgent and over-simplified.

Following a rough patch of frankly terrible films, actor Gerard Butler seems to be trying to get himself back on track as a dramatic actor of note in 2011 by starring in Ralph Fiennes’ Shakespearian adaptation Coriolanus, and Machine Gun Preacher. Butler himself is one of the film’s hundred-thousand producers, which marks it as something of a vanity project, even if he wasn’t part of production from the start. The performance is fine, even good when Butler is depending on his charms rather than his teeth-gnashing bite (he’s very good when working with the kids), but his accent is all over the place, and there’s generally nothing unique about the character. I’m sure the real Sam Childers is a fascinating individual, but his movie equivalent is pretty dull, and blends no shades of grey between his first act blacks and rest of the film whites. He’s either a completely terrible, heroin addicted criminal, or a genuine man of God who is only really hampered by the shortcomings of others. He has his third act crisis, but there’s never a realistic possibility of his actions having a genuinely adverse affect; he’s just having a bit of a temper tantrum. The other actors are given even less to work with, especially Michael Shannon, who plays a composite character that reminds us how far Childers can fall and appears on screen only long enough to remind us that he’s sad.

Machine Gun Preacher

Video


According to the specs, Machine Gun Preacher was shot using mixed 16mm and 35mm stocks. I don’t know where things are divided exactly, but rest assured there is some heavy damn grain on this film, regardless of stock used. The point here seems to be grit and grim, so the grain serves the transfer well and is rarely chunky or grotesque. Detail levels are average for type. For the most part, foreground details are sharper than background details, and the tight contrast levels and complex patterns work without shimmering or bleeding. Sequences shot on what I’m guessing is 16mm film feature a bit of edge enhancement, but nothing I’m willing to fault the transfer for. There’s a whole lot of color correction going on, which Forster and cinematographer Roberto Schaefer use to separate the different locations. Pennsylvania is largely presented as cool and blue with warm, orange highlights, and Sudan is largely presented as warm and orange with cool, blue highlights. Both palettes are spiked with burgundy and rich green elements. The colours are largely consistent and pure, despite the resolution issues and heavy grain, and black levels are quite deep without any bleeding.

Audio


This DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 soundtrack is not quite as impactful as I was hoping for. The mix leans more to music to create mood than sound effects, and is dialogue heavy for long stretches without any major stereo or directional influence. The dialogue volume levels are a bit up and down. For example, at one point it’s almost impossible to tell what Michael Shannon is saying, but the sound of him kissing Madeline Carroll’s forehead is crisp and loud. Aural highlights include any scene involving a Harley Davidson motor cycle, a big, throbbing tornado sequence that is almost entirely dependant on sound effects for setting scope and various battle sequence, where gunfire, screams and explosions all feature solid directional movement and effectively heavy LFE enhanced. The musical choices are entirely too obvious, including redneck rock classics and generic ‘African’ music, but it all sounds warm and sharp, so, for the purposes of the track, it’ll work.

Machine Gun Preacher

Extras


The extras begin with Machine Gun Preacher: A Discussion with Marc Forster (18:40). Here, Forster talks about the basic genesis of the project, meeting the real Sam Childers, research, casting, shooting on location, the film’s tone, and Childers’ reaction to the film. The disc also features Making the Music for Machine Gun Preacher (14:00, HD), a discussion with composers Thad Spencer, Tom Scott and Richard Werbowenki, and editor Matt Cheese about the film’s shockingly inadequate musical score, Chris Cornell’s ‘The Keeper’ music video, a trailer, and trailers for other Fox releases.

Machine Gun Preacher

Overall


There’s something interesting in the DNA of Machine Gun Preacher, but every turn reveals another missed opportunity. Director Marc Forster fails to mix rollicking violence with harrowing sentiment, Jason Keller’s screenplay plagues any possibility of originality, and none of the perfectly capable cast steps above and beyond the call of duty to save this mess. In the end, we’re left with something entirely average. The disc looks about as good as a 16mm grain-fest can possibly look in HD and the DTS-HD MA soundtrack is plenty punchy when required, but the extras fail to really tell us anything about the real Sam Childers’ on-going plight.

* Note: The images on this page do not represent the Blu-ray image quality.


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