His Bond flick Quantum of Solace received a mixed reception, but he's back on worthier ground with the based-on-true-story Machine Gun Preacher. Gerard Butler stars as Sam Childers, the real-life no-goodnik gang biker who found Jesus and went to build a church and orphanage in Sudan, while also getting stuck in to the ongoing civil war.
At over a couple of hours, Machine Gun Preacher is something of a slog. Rather than parachute us straight in at Childers's conversion, we get a pretty lengthy and bloody opening section set between his release from jail and his road to Damascus moment.
There's sex, guns, drugs, robbery, and some pretty appalling violence. It does the trick in convincing us that Childers really is a lost soul, but it also makes the relative ease of his conversion seem laughably simplistic.
An act of god offers Childers opportunity, before he travels to Uganda and then Sudan, where his involvement quickly oversteps that of helpful builder to active participant in the conflict between Sudan People's Liberation Army and Joseph Kony's Lord's Resistance Army (LRA). As he slips ever deeper into the mire in Africa, his only anchors are his wife Lynn (Michelle Monaghan), best friend Donnie (Michael Shannon) and child Paige (Madeline Carrol).
As much as the horrors of the LRA's atrocities, it's the film's elevation of Childers, underlined with a cheery post-credits sequence including images and clips of the man himself, which makes Machine Gun Preacher uncomfortable viewing.
Putting the real Childers to one side, Butler's interpretation seems too morally compromised from the outset, his love of guns and power driving his unorthodox approach to helping the kidnapped and orphaned children of southern Sudan.
There are moments where his role is questioned, once with sledgehammer subtlety by an aid worker who notes the similarities between Childers and Kony as the mix of guns, god, death, control, faith and demagoguery becomes a vicious swirl.
In these spiralling moments of moral complexity the movie finally finds its heart and focus, but the all-action gunfights and essentially tidy character arcs still hover uneasily over the backdrop of real-life horror on which the whole story sits.
It's not wrong for a film to show a young boy forced to kill his own mother, or a pile of burnt child corpses, or a woman who has had her lips torn off by a murderous militia, but when those images are true reflections of what is happening in the world, the film has to earn the right to do it. Machine Gun Preacher only just fails to earn that right, but that distance is enough to force concerns.