Machine Gun Preacher isn't exactly Hobo With a Shotgun - the neo-exploitation gorefest that came and went from theaters this summer.

But it could signal the beginning of a new trend. How about Uzi Toting Urologist? Day Trader with a Semiautomatic? Exotic Dancer and Her Derringer? It's an NRA film festival!

Alas, Machine Gun Preacher has loftier ambitions.

Inspired by the true story of Sam Childers, a biker and junkie who found his calling saving children in war-torn East Africa, Machine Gun Preacher is a brawny biopic that gives action star Gerard Butler the opportunity to travel the road to holy redemption - and to shoot dope, and shoot at Sudanese thugs, in the process.

Directed by Marc Forster (Monster's Ball, Finding Neverland), the movie begins in 2003 in southern Sudan, with a deadly village raid. Huts go up in flames, mothers are murdered, and their young sons are carted off to join the perpetrators in a genocidal civil war.

Cut to a few years earlier: Childers is just released from prison. His wife, Lynn (Michelle Monaghan), is waiting for him, and after a quickie in the car, she tells him she has found God. He goes looking for a score.

But while his old motorcycle buddy Donnie (Michael Shannon, wasted) plummets into a druggie downward spiral, Sam gets his act together, starts a successful construction company, and starts going to church, too.

It is there that he hears the words of a guest minister from Uganda, offering a litany of carnage and strife, of disease-infested refugee camps, of unspeakable horror.

Sam gets it in his head to go to East Africa and to help build schools, shelters. The visit transforms him, and soon he is back in Africa again. When he returns home, he fund-raises; his business suffers, and so do his marriage and family life. When his daughter asks if he'll pay for a limo for the school formal, he declines.

"You love them black babies more than you love me!" she says, storming out of the room.

It could be argued, too - at least as Sam Childers is presented in Machine Gun Preacher - that he loves firing off rounds of ammunition at savage militia fighters more than he loves his kid, too. When he's not busy building orphanages, Sam can be found defending said orphanages from attack. Is he a man of God, or a man of guns?

This may have been an interesting question to consider, but in the hands of Forster and his screenwriter, Jason Keller (working from Childers' memoir, Another Man's War), the matter is glossed over. And Butler's performance, all brute force and brute emoting, doesn't help to clarify it.

Whether he's rescuing kids and giving them a home, or out in the bush in the dead of night on a mission of revenge, Childers' deeds are presented simply as heroic. By the end of Machine Gun Preacher, its title character has become a cartoon.

Contact movie critic Steven Rea

at 215-854-5629 or srea@phillynews.com. Read his

blog, "On Movies Online," at http://www.philly.com/philly/blogs/onmovies/