If ever a project called out for a riveting documentary on a true life character such as Sam Childers — an ex-con who turned into a gun-totin’, one-man rescue operation for the children of Sudan — it would be this one. But no … instead, we experience onetime brawny action man turned feeble rom-commer Gerard Butler, attempting to prove his acting chops with his half-baked take on the Pennsylvania hillbilly turned savior. Making his exit from prison, Butler’s Sam stomps, scowls, snarls and storms … and twenty minutes later, having used up all the ill-mannered “s” verbs, he’s a new man.
But while he’s still in snarl mode, he manhandles his wife (Michelle Monaghan) for choosing the church over her prior Godless life as a stripper. He then varooms off to rob a crack house, subsequently shooting up a goodly amount of heroin before knifing a hobo, leaving him on the side of the road to die. Oops. Sam suddenly hits a fast bottom and before you can say “Amen,” he turns to Jesus, makes amends with family and friends, survives a tornado, starts up a successful contracting business, builds a church and ultimately flies off on a personal mission to East Africa. One sequence rapidly follows the other – surprisingly, shockingly without much tension.
It’s not until Sam stumbles on to a mutilated child in a Sudanese desert that he screams up to the heavens in horror. (The scene, coming out of context, is almost laughably over-the-top.) While Sam doesn’t seem to want to know anything about the enemy, a faceless bad man who abducts children by the truckload for his personal rebel army, we do. We hear the name “Joseph Kony” in passing, but Jason Keller’s script never bothers to delve into who he is, nor the specific politics that have brought the region to such a bloody impasse. Not too bright, Sam shoots first, and asks questions, um, never. Just like Keller.
The supporting cast is woefully underused, such as Monaghan’s righteous wife who wholeheartedly supports Sam’s African mission until, in an inexplicable reversal, she doesn’t. Kathy Baker’s portrayal of Sam’s mother consists of a singular benevolent smile, and Michael Shannon as the ex-junkie best friend Donnie might have been impressive if the role had been fleshed out with more depth. That said, when he’s expected to take over the role of patriarch during Sam’s long absences, and the fifteen-year-old daughter snuggles down in her bed, asking Donnie to read her a story and kiss her goodnight, the only emotion we feel is a decided wave of discomfort.
Perhaps the most difficult fact to digest is that this heavy-handed bloat comes from director Marc Forster, responsible for such well-received films as Finding Neverland, Monster’s Ball, Stranger than Fiction and The Kite Runner. Perhaps the blazing heat of the Sudan had gone straight to his head. A feeble excuse, but we can’t just shoot the messenger. Or can we?
A cautionary note to Butler: It’s not enough to take on a big dramatic part. You need to take on a good dramatic part.
Rating on a scale of 5 gunslingers from God: 1.5
Release date: September 23, 2011
Directed by: Marc Forster
Screenplay by: Jason Keller
Based on the memoir “Another Man’s War” by Sam Childers
Cast: Gerard Butler, Michelle Monaghan, Michael Shannon, Kathy Baker
Running Time: 123 minutes