Tom Jolliffe looks at the recent upturn in Gerard Butler’s career…
Gerard Butler has been around a while now. The Scottish actor began by making a name for himself in Britain before a few choice breaks saw him become something of a go to in Hollywood. He has the distinction of having a franchise he is synonymous with too. Whatever you might think of the Fallen trilogy (Olympus, London, Angel), it’s still been a successful trilogy of films which proved lucrative to Butler, but also kept him with a degree of relevancy whilst other films were scraping disappointing returns at the box office. Without the Fallen trilogy, Butler may well have found himself as a straight to video journeyman (though I’d wager he’d put a damn sight more effort in than a certain Mr. Willis).
For most movie fans, Butler’s major breakthrough was bellowing “This is Sparta!!” in 300 (a film that probably still remains Zack Snyder’s most effective use of his own visual style). For Brit fans it may be a film which followed that, Guy Ritchie’s somewhat underrated RocknRolla. Butler also had some prominence playing Dracula in Dracula 2001 and the Phantom in Phantom of the Opera. What 300 in particular did, was establish Butler as one of the new wave of action heroes, coming up alongside the likes of Jason Statham.
Butler’s action run was a mixed bag to say the least. He was perhaps a victim of his time, when a spate of high concept action thrillers were being greenlit, during a height of avid fart editing and Bourne style shaky cam. Filmmakers, through their lens and edit software were going for hyperkinetic over visual coherence (for a time becoming the rule and not the exception). Additionally, every spec script seemed pre-occupied with throwing in as many twists and turns as possible in order to stand out. Too much was going on and Butler was being tasked with largely playing stoic heroes, or occasionally one dimensional antagonists. Whether it was Gamer, Law Abiding Citizen or Bounty Hunters (this crossed genres with another Butler-rise staple, more later…) nothing was quite coming off, and increasingly no one seemed to be tapping into the charisma Butler has with the right circumstances to show it.
The one action vehicle that really seemed to kick off, even if it owed something to the sheer old school simplicity it approached the concept, was Olympus Had Fallen. It rewrote no books and reinvented no wheels, but it was a fast paced, ruthlessly efficient siege film with Butler’s heroic presidential bodyguard at the center of a hostile takeover of the White house. Interestingly, this came out very close to White House Down, Roland Emmerich’s bigger budget spin (with arguably a bigger headliner in Channing Tatum back then) on the same concept. Whilst the Emmerich vehicle was melodramatic and tonally inconsistent, it also felt watered down compared to the firmly R rated approach of Butler’s vehicle. Indeed, Butler as the heroic figure was the more convincing. Expectation for success pointed more firmly to White House Down being the White House in turmoil film that people would flock to that summer. As it was, Olympus Has Fallen proved more popular across the world, and ultimately was the one which spawned a franchise.
Whilst becoming an action man with some degree of bankability, Butler also found himself becoming a regular fixture in Rom-Coms. Unfortunately he perennially found himself in the kind of half-hearted, half baked rom-coms which Matthew McConaughey had been pounding out (you know, the Matt leans back against someone/something on the poster, kind of rom-coms) shortly before the McConaissance. Maybe Butler was filling a gap left, but in the majority of these films (including Bounty Hunters which crossed with action), something felt a little awkward. Occasionally it might have been him playing an American character, or filmmakers unsure of how to utilise the inherent Scottish charm correctly. A distinct lack of chemistry also seemed to hamper proceedings too.
Generally though, this was leading to a feeling among critics and cinephiles that perhaps Butler might be bland. Drama was awkward when it was there, but as actor you take the first hits, even if problems can be traced further back to the direction or the script. It’s not to say there weren’t exceptions though. The Vanishing gifted Butler the chance to hold screen in a minimalist, Lighthouse set thriller and bounce off Peter Mullen. There was also Coriolanus, opening to good reviews but almost inconsequential box office. He was also among the vocal cast in the animated How to Train Your Dragon franchise. However between the second and third parts in Drago, should one wish to take Rotten Tomatoes scores as a standardiser, he never topped 42% (aside from the aforementioned The Vanishing) and had a fair few around the low double digits. Of those, Butler dipped his toes into the disaster film genre with Geostorm, which proved to be a disaster. Butler is front and center as a worldwide geostorm event threatens to wipe out the planet. Par for the disaster film course but delivered with a lack of dramatic weight, subtlety and the requisite impressive visuals. A forgettable run was ongoing and even the shining lights were being left largely unseen.
A few years on and general feelings toward Butler were becoming indifferent among film fans. The notion of a renaissance seemed unlikely. Furthermore, no one in their right mind could have predicted that his potential turnaround might be kicked off by another world ending disaster film. On paper, Greenland had all the hallmarks of being an atypical Roland Emmerich film (one of Emmerich’s long time cohort/writers, Dean Devlin helmed Geostorm incidentally). What was delivered though, was something far more surprising. Shot for a relatively low budget, Greenland favoured intimate drama and action over big visual spectacle. The sparingly used FX sequences of calamitous flaming asteroids etc, looking suitably impressive, whilst much of the action revolved around moments of societal breakdown. In among this, Butler must take his family to get on a plane to Greenland where a special bunker awaits a select few. Cue inevitable complications, and array of cliches, but never ones which come at the expense of caring, whilst it managed to offer a few surprises along the way. Butler, at the center was also a big surprise. He offered emotional weight to a role which was more about the desperation to survive and determination to keep his loved ones safe, than being just the ‘action hero.’ Greenland in fact, represented the best film of its type in at least a decade, given its more human focus over being a visual effects showcase with some melodrama tacked in. It was surprisingly good, whilst Butler was surprisingly great, and it was greeted with good reviews from critics and fans alike.
Which brings us to phase two of the potential Butlernaissance… Copshop. Take Assault on Precinct 13 and view it through the gaze of Quentin Tarantino. You have Copshop, with Joe Carnahan delivering a film (according to fans and critics) of irreverence, energy and pizazz that he’s more than capable of (but sometimes doesn’t quite deliver). The trailers look great, promising some energetic escapism and the prospect of Butler in inspired form (among an excellent cast). The verdict suggest that the film delivers what it sets out to. The bar isn’t the highest set you’ll see this summer, but it seemingly clears it with aplomb. Butler has received plenty of praise too, and much like Greenland with the occasional degree of surprise. It probably shouldn’t come as a surprise that Butler can be great, but after years of being miscast (he was a poor choice as the Phantom for example) or misused, it appeared that people did forget.
Going forward, who knows what Butler’s output will deliver. Into his 50’s, his focus may be less on generic action, or generic rom-coms and be more on character acting and some emotional range. It appears he’s being more conscious of his choices, hitting up some film-makers with an indie mentality, as perhaps larger studios may actually be stepping back from him anyway. An upcoming film, Chase, a spin on Kurt Russell’s Breakdown, could go either way, but we’ll side on optimistic here (director Brian Goodman has previous with very 90’s era spec ideas, having directed the solidly formulaic, Black Butterfly). The Plane (a commercial pilot crash lands in a warzone) also seems like a 90’s cast off, which again feels nostalgic in these times and could potentially surprise (from the director of the very underrated Blood Father). Additionally Greenland 2 is in the works as is Den of Thieves 2, that despite a mixed response saw Butler in good form and proved popular with fans. There were reports he might do a fourth Fallen film but a recent fallout with producers over underrepresented profits for the first three films (which Butler has a % on) might have put paid to that. Though that franchise has probably gone as far as it can. Whether his upcoming slate will veer into some more interesting non-genre territory remains to be seen, but perhaps, Butler will be more cautious of how he’s utilised on screen and allow his presence and charisma to shine.
What are your thoughts on Gerard Butler? Is he hitting form at the right time? Let us know on our social channels @flickeringmyth…
Tom Jolliffe is an award winning screenwriter and passionate cinephile. He has a number of films out on DVD/VOD around the world and several releases due out in 2021/2022, including, Renegades (Lee Majors, Danny Trejo, Michael Pare, Tiny Lister, Nick Moran, Patsy Kensit, Ian Ogilvy and Billy Murray), Crackdown, When Darkness Falls and War of The Worlds: The Attack (Vincent Regan). Find more info at the best personal site you’ll ever see…https://www.instagram.com/jolliffeproductions/