Okay, okay. So we all know what’s going to be the de facto Gerard Butler film. However, despite some cliché action, hammy fantasy, and a detour into the dearth of romantic comedies, Butler has a few eclectic gems in his repertoire for us to peruse.
Gerard Butler’s convicted murderer John Tillman competes for his freedom as Kable in Slayers, a televised fight to the death created by Michael C. Hall (Dexter) in which nanites enable real world gamers to control the battlefield mayhem. Writers/directors/producers/rollerblading cameramen Mark Neveldine and Brian Taylor (Crank) create a cluttered SIMS meets The Running Man message, advocating against media manipulation and our obsession with instant mass technology whilst playing into such constant cool with five second camera shots, hectic visuals, harsh graphics, loud music, and dizzying editing. Even dramatic scenes have unnecessary zooms, distracting movements, flashing lights, and hectic photography. This in your face style may be an intentional parallel, however the audience never has room to breathe or contemplate the underlying commentary on consumerism, oral fixations, over sharing, and interconnected indulgences. Hall’s confusing parody performance mixes singalong sardonics with controlling people to maim, rape, and kill. This is supposed to be humorous, how? Reporter Kyra Sedgwick (The Closer) has little to do, and wife Amber Valetta (Revenge) bears the brunt of the video game depravity thanks to a gluttonous handler amid yet more sex, nudity, and neon. Smug, apathetic kids hiding behind online avatars are too realistic to be entertaining – there’s no time to pause on Tillman’s pain and slow motion flashbacks fall prey to off kilter filming with implications a la Blade Runner left unexplored. Ambiguous Kable in game killings versus Tillman doing what he has to do consequences attempt nuance, but the brief emotional dilemmas are clunky. Fortunately, we can root for on form action Butler despite the preposterous game play and lack of character focus. Although the intelligent science fiction allegory has merits, the devoid nature of technological control is lost in the askew, gaudy montages. Fans of the cast can see the appeal here, however, high concept audiences may not be able to get past the herky-jerky flavoring.
9. Beowulf & Grendel
Thanks to so many other takes on the Old English ode Beowulf, we know the story of this 2005 adaptation from producer and director Sturla Gunnarsson (Monsoon). The eponymous Butler comes to the aid of Stellan Skarsgard (Mamma Mia!) as Danish King Hrothgar when his Heorot Mead Hall is plagued by repeated attacks from the monster Grendel (Ingvar Eggert Sigurdsson, Angels of the Universe). The story from Andrew Rai Berzins (North of 60) is close enough to the original poem – minus bookends about Grendel’s father and child, Irish missionaries versus pagan beliefs, and no dragons. Here Grendel and his mother are merely creepy, deformed trolls cum oafish sea people with seaweed style without fantastical elements to their monstrosity. Despite swords and chain mail that look like Halloween clearance, the ye olde designs, international cast, and beautiful locations add chilly, windswept authenticity and gravitas to the well done if small scale longships and battles. Wrath of Gods – a fascinating, award winning behind the scenes documentary on Beowulf & Grendel – highlights the turbulent production, difficult weather conditions, and low budget strain in this perilous Icelandic environment. In some ways, that festival darling is better than the adorable but tiny horses, slightly safe feeling sword action, and the underutilized cast including Tony Curran (Outlaw King) and Rory McCann (Game of Thrones) so period dirty you can’t tell who is who. Unfortunately, the rustic drama takes a turn for the worse when people speak. F bombs and modern syntax ruin the old speaketh, making for some ridiculous exposition compromising the attempt to tell this tale straight. Awkward sex and assaults are also shoehorned in thanks to witch Sarah Polley (Road to Avonlea). There’s already an infamous mother that goes unexplored, so why insert another female for suffering? Thankfully, Butler’s shaggy Celtic look matches his quiet heroic calm. Beowulf arrives with his warrior reputation preceding him, but the weak action doesn’t always live up to his stature. I’d love to see Butler take on this role again. Despite the epic’s ubiquitous nature, it’s frustrating that yet another telling just misses the mark. If this ditched the modern intrusions and kept it’s great talent and authentic flair but had a bit more financing, this could have been something really special.
8. The Ugly Truth
This 2009 romantic comedy from director Robert Luketic (Legally Blonde) isn’t that bad – Butler has certainly made worse. However the tidy predictability and safe shortsightedness here play into every inevitable genre cliché as TV producer Katherine Heigl (Grey’s Anatomy) reluctantly accepts Butler’s crass reporter and his hit ‘The Ugly Truth’ segment on her morning news program. Naturally he falls for her prude to knockout transformation while the supposedly mature comedy goes through the motions, never even pushing the envelope with nudity or sexual content. Dirty words are tame, today’s news is more shocking, and the twee plot underestimates modern, sardonic viewers in screwed up relationships with banal formula. The battle of the sexes falls back on answering machines, barely visible text messages, Sprint product placement, and of the moment pop music montages before a sexy dance scene helps the stars realize what the audience has known all along. The characters themselves are objectified instead of treated as intelligent working people, and the supporting ensemble is wasted when their wacky television station complications are more interesting. Heigl’s confident, working woman ice queen with a checklist drastically misrepresents herself to land a man, and it’s not a positive message. Her physical comedy loses its luster after playing the awkward for laughs too many times but we’re not supposed to notice the obvious pulling pigtails attraction until the script says so with baseball innuendo and vibrating panties. Butler’s sentimental family angles are an under cooked contrivance dumbed down for the romantic expectations, and although too many failed deadpans stunt his relaxed wit, comedic timing, and natural charisma, his hint of scruff every man can be downright fetching thanks to his naughty delivery and off the cuff zingers. Rather than consider what this could have been, viewers have to look past the routine la-di-da for the charming cast’s chemistry.
7. Chasing Mavericks
Water, smooth sounds, and surfing zen anchor this 2012 Jay Moriarity biopic as Gerard Butler’s Frosty Hesson teaches Jonny Weston’s (John Dies at the End) young Santa Cruz Moriarity his wisdom to taming the waves despite mom Elisabeth Shue’s (Leaving Las Vegas) hesitance. Due to illness, Michael Apted (Coal Miner’s Daughter) came on to co-direct with Curtis Hanson (L.A. Confidential), and it shows in the uneven direction. Touching familial relationships are cut short while unnecessary teen antagonism and skateboarding interludes go on too long. Is this a teen sports movie or a family drama that happens to have surfing? Though saccharin voiceovers are obvious, allegories about what’s happening beneath the smooth surface lead to poignant moments, fear versus panic realizations, and learning to apply the on the waves positive for when things go wrong in life. This PG isn’t edgy with the death and vices, and the wonderful ocean photography, fluid colors, and aerial cinematography are likewise pleasing even when the instrumental training montages and slow motion surf turn syrupy. Despite the modern teal saturation and intrusive orange tint, older technology, retro homes, and crappy vans contrast the beautiful beaches with nineties throwbacks. While Elisabeth Shue and Abigail Spencer (Angela’s Eyes) as Frosty’s wife go underused when the film needed more of the tight knit domestic complexities, Jonny Weston fits the tender determination and male bonding well. Butler – who had a surfing accident during filming – is scruffy surfer dude handsome in certain scenes yet haggard and strained in others. However, the washed out look works with the older unglamorous and reluctant reading glasses. Frosty’s on the water knowhow is genuine with excellent near tearful moments and heartfelt merit from Butler. Despite its confusing identity, this inspiring aquatic tender can stir surfing lovers, fans of the cast, and teen sports audiences.
6. The Phantom of the Opera
Joel Schumacher (The Lost Boys) and Andrew Lloyd Webber (Cats) bring this 2004 adaptation of the long running stage production to life with Gerard Butler as the elusive Phantom obsessed with dragging Emmy Rossum’s (Shameless) Christine Daae to his lair beneath the Opera Populaire. Naturally, this adheres to the musical not necessarily Gaston Leroux’s original 1911 novel, and what could be said is embellished in overlong song – sacrificing pace and straying from the core love triangle in grandiose, near two and a half hour indulgence. Though atmospheric, black and white bookends and flashbacks within flashbacks clutter the rafter chases, shocking deaths, and taut suspense. Occasional out of sync audio and singing on top of each other make subtitles necessary, but fortunately, the surreal camera shots, layered reflections, dreamlike fog, and sweeping tracking shots match the duality, masks, melancholy cemetery, black capes, snowy sword fights, and blood red lips. Lavish theatrics, the hurried back stage, and dungeon mazes create high and low dimension amid smoke, mirrors, candles, sparkle, and attention to detail. Granted, Butler’s divisive singing is uneven at best. However, The Phantom is not a trained virtuoso but an angry, juvenile stalker equating music to love. His unpolished sound reflects his desperate passion, violent streak, and killer instinct, yet the audience looks beyond his flawed face and monstrous tendencies thanks to the veiled underground reveal, its symbolic tunnels, parting gates, and bridal stockings. The song over scares indecision makes the weeping Phantom sympathetic, even sexy, for there’s no mistaking the ascending stairs, rising octaves, innuendo crescendos, and illicit duet lyrics coming to a head – or a chandelier drop. Despite viewer frustrations between the intense angst and the need for a clipped abundance, there’s a certain sophistication and moody niche for this gothic romance musical.
Debut director Ralph Fiennes (Harry Potter) sees his Caius Martius Coriolanus fight long time Volscian enemy Gerard Butler in this 2011 Shakespearean update. Screenwriter John Logan (Skyfall) retains the original syntax alongside hectic violence, modern battlefields, confusing names, and unclear politics. Audiences unaware may find the dark interiors and dry pace tough to follow despite quality soliloquies and fine outdoor photography highlighting the war torn, graffiti ridden Serbian locations. Pundits arguing in ye olde seems like an uneven mix of genres, and the two hours takes too long in getting to the meaty twists. Fortunately, officials supposedly speaking for the public manipulate the fickle people for their own advantage when not campaigning on talk shows or watching the aptly tongue in cheek Fidelis TV network news footage. Subtly fascist fashions, parades, and pomp provide crowds recording the action with their cell phones while the politicians spin or vilify, and everyone wants something for nothing in the multi-faceted, ever relevant commentary. Fiennes leads the thespian support with an authentic delivery and intense, claustrophobic combat intimate in its hatred. Butler doesn’t have as much screen time, making their rivalry somewhat one sided with him underutilized in what is actually a very strong performance. His natural accent gives Aufidius an angry ye olde delivery with serious substance and battlefield desperation. Ironically it’s Jessica Chastain (Zero Dark Thirty) as Martius’ worrying wife Virgilia who is out of place compared to Vanessa Redgrave (Atonement) as his scene stealing mother Volumnia. The biggest problem here is that the film doesn’t seem to know who its audience is. Modern action viewers will like the rousing military elements but not the Shakespearean dialogue, and die hard Bardists will be disappointed at the updated setting. Thankfully, the transposed power and politics get better as this goes on, demanding the attention of thought provoking audiences looking for sophisticated action, performances, and statements.
4. Olympus Has Fallen
Disgraced Secret Service agent Gerard Butler must save President Aaron Eckhart (The Dark Knight) when North Korean terrorists siege upon the White House in this 2013 yarn from director Antoine Fuqua (Training Day). The layered perils and critical situations unfold with bravery and character angst in the first hour before the second half of the film dispenses with any possible subterfuge in favor of straightforward action. The clock is ticking amid helicopters, explosions, shootouts, realistic triage, and intense fight choreography. For two hours, the graphic, hard hitting, solid R maturity accents the heavy twists as the audience holds its collective breath. Despite some terribly amateur CGI and unfinished special effects, the disturbing, difficult to watch attack on the White House does what it sets out to do. Intentionally catchy quips, unintentionally overly serious ham, preposterous logistics, and outlandish plot holes, however, do require a certain suspension of disbelief. Uneven editing, frenetic nighttime action, and scenes so fast you can’t see everything lead to a hasty ending lacking in hugs, handshakes, or ceremonies when a few more minutes of resolution would have set off the ensemble. Wife and front line nurse Radha Mitchell (Pitch Black) deserved more, and most of Ashley Judd’s (Kiss the Girls) impact is spoiled in the trailer. Angela Bassett (What’s Love Got to Do with It), Morgan Freeman (Driving Miss Daisy), and Melissa Leo (The Fighter) perform as expected despite broad characterizations, and Aaron Eckhart (The Dark Knight) delivers the tough lines and tender family moments. Dishonor or redemption, Butler fits Mike Banning perfectly. He’s somewhat superficial and not as sardonic as viewers might have expected in true throwback kick ass, but the no nonsense hero sheds all the formalities, getting dirty and intense to save the day without any ambiguous anti-hero doubt. Blows are exchanged, shots are fired, kill moves are made. Of course, unevenly fleshed out terrorism and possible political controversies will frustrate viewers, but despite a meaty cast, this isn’t meant to make statements or be a complex thriller. Old school action audiences and fans of the stars can enjoy the entertainment here.
3. Machine Gun Preacher
This true 2011 telling of Gerard Butler as the eponymous biker turned minister Sam Childers and his mission work in Africa is rousing in its spiritual plights, yet hampered by its own heavy hitting, multi layered story. Upon his release from prison, Childers finds his faith and founds a church before building a Sudanese orphanage and taking up arms when the maimed children in his care are threatened by the Lord’s Resistance Army. Director Marc Forster (Quantum of Solace) sets the scene with upsetting village attacks, but the intercut editing and uneven pace create confusion as the plot goes back and forth through years of drugs, guns, and robbery. The life changing conversion could be a movie unto itself, so the transition from underworld debauchery to church going seems fast and superficial – a mere catalyst for the mishmash of righteous war epic and quiet personal piece that doesn’t always hit home thanks to the indeterminate structure, obvious symbolism, and timeline crunch. The unrefined heaviness leaves the audience with an uncomfortable emptiness rather than closure as white savior Childers interferes more than helps. We can root for his ministry but the renegade arms will negate the mission for some viewers thanks to the confusing commentary at hand. Solid emotional scenes from the ensemble on mercenary motivation versus humanitarian aid or killing for the right reasons reflect the viewers’ ethical questions, but Michelle Monaghan (True Detective) falls prey to spousal clichés and we don’t see enough of Michael Shannon’s (Boardwalk Empire) poignant recovery. Fortunately, the story gets better as it goes on thanks to the honest struggles and human imperfection before restarting in Africa with landmine consequences and deep determination. Gerard Butler goes from motorcycle cool to cleaned up nice and militant swag, embodying Childers’ larger than life presence with serious delivery and physicality. Butler’s zest doesn’t shy away from the difficult choices gnawing at one’s core – be it crisis of faith or cradling the dead in his embrace. The meandering inconsistencies will be polarizing rather than inspiring, and the sometimes zealous, sometimes lacking production finesse hinders the potent performances and not for the faint of heart shocks. However the touching moments and relevant issues here are worthy of a viewing and discussion.
2. Dear Frankie
Frankie’s dad has been perpetually away at sea but writes letters of his adventures to his deaf son in this endearing 2004 family drama. When Frankie and his mother Lizzie move to a Scottish seaside town, his father’s ship also comes to port – contradicting the written travels because Lizzie has been secretly writing the letters after leaving her violent husband. Desperate to maintain the charade, she hires Gerard Butler to pretend to be Frankie’s father for a day, but new emotional bonds between the isolated family and this mysterious stranger become stronger than any of them anticipated. Windswept settings, skipping stones along the shore, and bundled up locals invite the viewer to stay for fish and chips as emotional music and Scottish quaint mood anchor the smart, double duty dialogue and simple acts of kindness. Debut director Shona Auerbach and writer Andrea Gibb’s (AfterLife) tale may not technically pass the Bechdel test, for the women here discuss ex-husbands and romantic potentials. However, the majority of conversations are about fathers, brothers, and sons negatively effecting the ladies as unseen abuses are strongly felt via angry shouts, hands afraid to touch, and the suitcase always at the ready. Jack McElhone (Stacked) as young Frankie is immediately lovable in beautiful scenes with the excellent Emily Mortimer (Mary Poppins Returns) as gun shy Lizzie. She has to trust someone, but Frankie’s letters are the only way she can hear her son. Lizzie has to return to some sense of being, and the stranger easily fits into their lives as she lets her guard down in beautiful, subtle moments. The soft spoken stranger’s travel bag is empty, and viewers must speculate about his past. Butler puts a lot of performance in what is technically a small amount of material – digging deep with memorable vignettes and silent, simmering strength. Through his stranger, this broken family is able to stop running and instead contemplate what happens next. Despite no easy answers, this tear inducing, stunning little story is a satisfying, moving, must see picture with more discoveries upon multiple viewings.
Bloody action, vivid effects, and a rousing score dominate writer and director Zack Snyder’s (Justice League) adaptation of the 1998 Frank Miller (Sin City) comic book retelling of the Battle of Thermopylae. However, this Spartan last stand is also a somber and emotional piece with elaborate slow motion poetry and moving personal moments amid the bravery, sacrifices, head rolling, and limb losing violence as Gerard Butler’s Leonidas leads a small force of his best men to cut off the invading Persian army at a critical mountain pass. The beautiful palette reflects the tremendous odds against the titular soldiers with oracle sequences and love scenes so blue they are almost black and white, faded and otherworldly like memories juxtaposed against the earthy bare battlefield where the only color is the Spartan red cape and spilled blood. The hard R nudity and sex scenes match the effective splatter and phalanx action as the renowned ruthlessness and body count mounts amid mystic weapons and conscripted elephants. We root for the brutality while echoing spears and sword clangs accent an unusual if borrowed score combining choral chants, classical awe, and heavy metal. Although many quotes come from the historical literature, there’s actually precious little dialogue during the battle sequences beyond David Wenham’s (Lord of the Rings) narration as Dilios. This voiceover is also somewhat redundant when we can see the action and hear the speeches waxing on honor and glory in death, but such fireside “tell a Spartan passerby” embellishment is part of the fantasy. While the action blends the heavy and overly serious with lighthearted quips, the pace remains full on for the duration thanks to epic performances. Lena Headey’s (Game of Thrones) Queen Gorgo provides Spartan at home strength, but Captain Vincent Regan (Troy) shamelessly weeps over his dead son and loyal Michael Fassbender (Shame) has nothing to lose. They doubt the Spartan way yet will do and die nonetheless – needs of the many outweighing the needs of the few and all that. Despite one too many Christ-like sacrificial images and ridiculously incredible physique aside, Butler’s inspiring king anchors any hyperbole with a superior, over the top, multi-layered passion. His facial range, angry roars, and quick tears carry the heroic lovelorn from the famous “This is Sparta!” to the final enemy volley. Yes, we notice our famous Greek has a decided Scottish brogue. We also know how this story ends, yet we’re along for the hellish ride – hoping this time history will turn out differently. Although there have been numerous memes and parodies since, 300’s groundbreaking visual influence can still be found in blockbusters today. Die hard scholars might not dig the liberties here, but this historical comic book come to life remains ahead of its time excellence.
Honorable Mentions: RocknRolla, Law Abiding Citizen, How to Train Your Dragon