Gerard Butler, Middle-of-the-Road Movie Star

By  · Published on March 4th, 2016

Count your blessings, America: today you can walk into almost any multiplex in the country and be treated to a pair of big-budget Gerard Butler action movies. In one, Butler plays an angry space god who tries to sacrifice the planet in pursuit of his own immortality. In the other, he plays a secret service agent who will kill any foreigner to protect the President. Incredible, right? With such high-concept films to choose from, you might be surprised to discover that since the release of Zack Snyder’s 300 in 2007, Butler has only managed a single live-action film with a fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes. A switch to Metacritic provides more nuanced (though no less damning) results: one positive live-action Metascore and nine that the website designates as negative.

Even with a decade of critical flops at his fingertips, it’s still odd to think of Gerard Butler as something less than a Hollywood action star. In a recent piece at i09, writer Cheryl Eddy made just such a claim, arguing that Butler is the “perfect movie star for our times” due to his almost complete lack of off-screen personality. This makes a certain degree of sense. Despite the fact that Butler is one of the more prolific action stars of the last decade, there’s no easy way to define his appeal. Butler built his reputation on flawless physique, but so too have actors like Jason Momoa; even the former’s exotic appeal as a Scotsman doesn’t explain why Butler has flourished and other actors from Scotland – such as Dougray Scott, the former frontrunner for Wolverine – are quietly resigned to genre television and low-budget sequels. Butler is a little handsome, a little funny, and a little ripped. When compared to his competition, the whole is greater than the sum of his parts.

Though it was a pair of blockbuster movies that made Butler famous – the big-screen adaptation of Phantom of the Opera and his role as King Leonidas in 300 — it’s not as if he spent the years prior honing his craft as a character actor. Even the actor’s prestige work – such as the well-received Dear Frankie, which the Los Angeles Times reported debuted at the 2005 Cannes Film Festival to “a standing ovation that reportedly lasted for 10 minutes” – features Butler playing the same brashly sympathetic hero as any number of his later action films. Butler plays himself; or, more accurately, Butler selects unestablished roles that do not require him to venture too far from his comfort zone. At an age where more and more studios feel it’s easier to bulk up the right talent for a blockbuster movie, Butler seems almost anachronistic, the last in a line of action heroes who were muscle first, craft second.

What’s so remarkable about Butler, however, is how close he came to having a completely different career. In 2001, Scottish newspaper The Daily Record reported that Butler was on producer Barbara Broccoli’s shortlist to take over as James Bond. In 2007, Butler was attached to play the role of Snake Plissken in a remake of Escape from New York. That same year, Butler was cast as a young Jim Malone alongside Nicolas Cage in a Brian De Palma prequel to The Untouchables. Finally, in 2011, Butler was tagged to star in director Ridley Scott’s “fact-based thriller” detailing a failed coup in Equatorial Guinea by a retired British soldier.

It’s a fascinating universe of what-ifs. On paper, none of these characters stray too far from the man’s strengths as an actor. Butler’s Bond may have continued in the tone set by Pierce Brosnan’s films, but it’s easy to see the current wave of Bond films finding a happy medium between contemporary spy thriller and Butler’s throwback charm. The same could be said of Butler as Snake Plissken in Escape from New York. He may not be the best choice for the role – and one can question whether the film needs to be remade at all – but Butler would be completely serviceable as a gruff ex-special forces in a dark vision of our future. In either scenario, Butler would have bucked his trend of originating roles, inviting comparisons and evaluations of his performance against the actors that made the character famous. This means less Action Figure Butler and more Actor in a Role Butler.

And even things had not worked out for these iconic roles, there was still the possibility of working with a handful of prestige directors at the height of his career. Butler was matched well with Guy Ritchie in 2008’s RocknRolla; though the reviews were mixed, the film was hailed as a comeback for the director after the terrible reception to both Swept Away (2002) and Revolver (2005). Had Butler made a point of working with established filmmakers – and not his typical mixed bag of journeyman directors – he might still have developed the sort of “thinking man’s action star” reputation that accompanied actors like Russell Crowe. It’s an easy thing to say. In a 2013 interview with The Independent, Butler expressed some subtle frustration at the type of filmmakers he had been paired with for the past few years. “It really pisses me off when people go, ‘Just go work with Paul Thomas Anderson or Quentin Tarantino’. It’s not that easy.”

Despite all of this, our dirty secret is that we still like Gerard Butler. Even as he bounces between mediocre action films and weirdly aggressive romantic comedies, his movies – at least until last weekend – continue to release wide, open well, and make back their budget with room to spare. Butler occupies a tier of Hollywood almost entirely to himself, a tier of $50m+ budgets and the veneer of major blockbusters without the largesse or dumpster-diving of films operating one rung above or below. He comes off genuinely interesting in interviews (especially if the host is Craig Ferguson) and even as the bombs stack up, I’ve never found myself less interested in a movie because Gerard Butler was in it. If there were a cutoff point for stardom – a bare minimum of appeal required to be considered a Hollywood lead – that cutoff point might look and sound an awful lot like Gerard Butler. And when it’s all said and done, Butler should take that as the compliment I’m pretty sure I think it is.

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Matthew Monagle is an Austin-based film and culture critic. His work has appeared in a true hodgepodge of regional and national film publications. He is also the editor and co-founder of Certified Forgotten, an independent horror publication. Follow him on Twitter at @labsplice. (He/Him)