'Machine Gun Preacher' aims a little higher
By Susan Wloszczyna, USA TODAY
TORONTO – There is no denying that t
he main attractions of the pulpy-sounding Machine Gun Preacher are the often harrowing and inspirational true-life adventures of Sam Childers, the wild-man biker, drug addict and ex-con turned self-made minister who found his calling as savior and protector of the victimized children of war-torn Sudan.
But alongside the depictions of atrocities, gruesome deaths and vigilante-style justice in the biographical drama opening Friday is an unusual and tender romance shared by a married couple (and parents of a now-grown daughter) whose devotion to God only increased their passion for one another.
"In some ways, it feels like the eternal story of a woman who thinks that eventually her man is going to change," says Gerard Butler, 41, who plays this larger-than-life outlaw with all the red-blooded brio he can muster after spending time with the real Childers. "Though I think the essence of Sam has never changed that much. He still has all that pent-up craziness within him, which is what drives him to do great things."
"I think it is what drives their love, too," adds Michelle Monaghan, 35, a willowy tower of strength as Sam's wife, Lynn, a former stripper. "That's what she is attracted to. They are crazy about each other and they drive each other mad, too."
"It makes me think of a line I heard when I was at university: 'Ain't nothing like a badass to make a girl's heart beat faster,'" observes Butler. "Maybe that's one of the reasons Lynn stuck by him." Somehow, this "quiet giant" — as Monaghan calls her — has endured Sam's long absences while in battle zones and financial burdens that resulted from his dedication to building an orphanage in Sudan.
Most faith-based Hollywood films don't focus on racy encounters, let alone start with one. But the minute a snarling and still-unrepentant Sam gets out of jail after the credits roll, there are Butler and Monaghan bouncing around in the driver's seat of a parked car.
They didn't know each other before that intimate scene, their first together, which was shot on location in Detroit. But they certainly were close friends by the end of the day.
"It broke the ice," Monaghan says. "There's nothing like being stuck in a Pinto with Gerard Butler, I'll tell you that much. That's a pretty tight spot to be in. It was so hot and humid."
"We could barely breathe," Butler recalls, "with our hands on the roof and on the window while we were grinding against each other."
The actor as well as director Marc Forster (Finding Neverland, Monster's Ball) made sure the script reflected that side of Sam and Lynn's relationship, proving that having religion doesn't necessarily douse desire. "The first drafts I saw took a lot of the fun and sex out," Butler says. "But the first thing you notice when you meet the two of them is the twinkle that Sam has in his eye."
Forster chose Butler, who has done both romantic comedies (The Ugly Truth) and war epics (300), for his forthright masculinity. "There are very few real men in leading roles today and Gerry fulfilled that."
As for Monaghan, the director thought she was the perfect female counterpart to stand up to Butler. "Lynn is a very brave woman, and Michelle felt right for it."
The film is already having an effect on audiences, not just raising awareness of the situation in Africa but also causing some to re-evaluate their own lives. Monaghan tells of a letter written by a woman who took her daughter to a test screening of Preacher.
"She had been heavily into drugs," she says. "She went to the movie, and since then, she has been drug-free. She actually joined one of Sam's efforts and is working for a non-profit for Sudan now.
"I think this film will enlighten people, that's for sure."