In Defense of Gerard Butler, King Of Modern Trash Cinema

By all accounts, Gerard Butler is a wild man.

He stopped drinking at 27. This followed his stint as a law student at Glasgow University – where he gulped his way through a degree, smashed bottles over his own head at pubs, ran in front of cars, and even once woke up in Paris, miles from where he'd been at a party, covered in gashes and blood, and, years later, still couldn't tell an interviewer what happened (because he honestly doesn't recall). Upon graduation, he drank his way through his first job as a civil lawyer trainee in Edinburgh until he was sacked, a week before he was due to progress.

Butler moved to London to become an actor; penniless and chasing a dream he'd had since watching American movies as a kid. Shortly thereafter, he was approached in a coffee shop by Steven Berkoff, who gave him a role in a production of Shakespeare's tragedy Coriolanus. This was just one of many stage parts wherein Butler honed his craft, including playing heroin junkie Mark "Rent Boy" Renton in the theater adaptation of Danny Boyle's Trainspotting ('96).

Butler owns a beefy allure – green-eyed and barrel-chested; smile bright, but his handsome face weathered – miles upon miles of international road showing on his 48-year-old mug. He's the sort of "man's man" performer we don't really see much of anymore – forged in the flames of old school genre movie icons like Rod Taylor, and should they ever remake Dark of the Sun ('68), one hopes whoever's producing has Butler's agent on speed dial. Because he would make one hell of a Captain Curry, leading a band of mercenaries through the Congo as he seeks to steal $50 million in diamonds.

Or perhaps the lines on Butler's face are a result of the numerous reinventions he's already undergone during his 20-year career. While those who live and breathe DTV action movies trekked out this past weekend for Den of Thievesthe sleazy-looking directorial debut from London Has Fallen ('16) screenwriter Christian Gudegast – Butler's transformation from rom-com leading man to burly B-Movie action freak appears bizarre and laughable to most. Yet beneath all the foul language, bloody violence and bellowing laughter is a legitimate commitment to persona, which Butler has cultivated while traversing a rather rocky road to Hollywood stardom.

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The Early Years (and Dracula 2000)

It began with Mrs. Brown ('97) – a costume drama in which Queen Victoria (Judi Dench) falls for a servant (Billy Connolly) following the death of her royal companion. Butler plays Archie Brown, the younger brother and confidant to the Queen's new lover, who's quick to warn his sibling of the dangers of this new relationship. It's a solid screen debut, as Butler gets to spit wisdom in his Scottish brogue, sounding experienced beyond his years. This turn would be followed by a bit part in Pierce Brosnan's second (and arguably worst) appearance as James Bond in Tomorrow Never Dies ('97), where Butler plays a radio operator on the HMS Devonshire – a ship in the Royal Navy intentionally sent off-course into Chinese-held waters.

After the single series stint on the ill-fated Young Person's Guide to Becoming a Rock Star ('98), Butler had his first brush with B-Movie acting in Tale of the Mummy ('98) – Highlander ('86) director Russell Mulcahy's schlocky stab at updating the old Hammer Films formula for the direct-to-video crowd (complete with a Christopher Lee appearance). Butler portrays a member of an excavation team who gets a little too fascinated by one of the monster's ancient relics, thus leading his character to plunge down a seemingly bottomless cavern. It's a role that adds up to roughly nine minutes of screen time, yet stands as the first mile marker on Butler's highway toward the most memorable segment of his resume.

If someone were to ask you how to define the output of Miramax's genre arm Dimension Films during the '90s, the easiest way might be to simply show them a copy of Patrick Lussier's Dracula 2000 ('00). Luke Mulcahy's The Mummy, it's another Hammer riff – only this time on the contemporary updates the British studio pulled during the last gasp of their glory years (think: Dracula A.D. 1972 ['72]). It's still the Dracula you know and love – right down to the last voyage of the Demeter, the Count's sexy brides (played here by Jennifer Esposito, pop star Vitamin C, and Jeri Ryan), and his adversary being a descendant of Van Helsing (Christopher Plummer) – only now there are Virgin Records stores and Omar Epps plays one of the thieves who accidentally steal the Prince of Darkness' coffin during an elaborate heist.

Something tells this writer that Butler's roles in forgettable UK productions like Fast Food ('99) and One More Kiss ('99) weren't considered when producers cast the budding heartthrob as the most famous vampire of all time. In fact, Butler's barely allowed to say a word for half the movie's runtime, instead looking menacingly sexy (not to mention slim) while stalking about a popping Mardi Gras setting. But there's something undeniably magnetic about this new Count, with his flowing grunge band locks and piercing eyes. The movie might not be that great (or even good, for that matter), but Butler's certainly having the time of his life wearing all that black, and embracing a different sort of vamp in his heart. It'd still be a little while before his true destiny would come calling, but there's certainly a spark in the star's step that's infectious.

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Gerard, Lord of Adventure

Butler returned to television for a string of overlooked projects, such as starring (alongside mentor Berkoff) as the eponymous conqueror in the USA Network's Attila (2001) mini-series, and playing an adjudicator in the Masterpiece Theater courtroom drama The Jury ('02) before pure pulp came calling again. This time, it was Rob Bowman's post-apocalyptic men vs. dragons opus, Reign of Fire ('02), where Butler's everyman discovers allegiance with Christian Bale's peaceful London colonist looking to take a stand against Matthew McConaughey's bald, marauding general. It's nothing flashy – though, to be fair, little is when compared to McConaughey's scenery chewing – but again showed Butler gravitating toward a genre work with an odd narrative hook.

Reign of Fire also marks the beginning of the next way Hollywood producers and casting agents tried to utilize the actor's roguish screen persona. Butler's biggest role up to this point came the very next year in Jan de Bont's sequel to the video game cinema hit Tomb Raider ('01). In The Cradle of Life ('03), Butler is Terry Sheridan – old flame of chronic spelunker Lara Croft (Angelina Jolie) – who helps lead her to the mythical Pandora's Box. Tomb Raider: The Cradle of Life is an awful motion picture, but Butler's certainly straining to really cement his place as Hollywood's next dangerously appealing leading man. However, The Cradle of Life tanked at the box office, sending the performer packing from the tentpole stage.

Richard Donner's piss poor adaptation of Michael Crichton's Timeline ('03) saw Butler teaming up with a group of time-traveling archaeologists to try and retrieve one's father (Billy Connolly again) from Medieval France. Joel Schumacher's The Phantom of the Opera ('04) was a lavish attempt at bringing Andrew Lloyd Webber's iconic musical to the big screen, with Butler behind the mask. The Game of Their Lives ('05) made Butler the captain of a US soccer team, who went on to defeat England in a 1950 exhibition match. To wit, Butler was game to traverse not only the world, but history itself, sing his heart out, and even jump into a sports uniform, if it meant bringing his Scottish visage to a wider audience.

However, the strangest role Butler tackled came from Canadian filmmaker Sturla Gunnarsson, who transformed the classic poem Beowulf ('05) into a live-action Danish epic, with our man in the title role. This came just a year before Zack Snyder's 300 ('06), which launched Butler and his washboard abs into another stratosphere of superstardom. Joined by Stellan Skarsgård, Beowulf is a blood-splattered adaptation that only grossed $4,000 in the United States, and less than $100,000 worldwide. This was the lowest point of Butler's attempts at becoming a movie star, pigeonholed as this thickset, period piece king that seemingly no one wanted to watch. He was another Sam Worthington; an interchangeable handsome face that could easily be replaced.

Obviously, Beowulf was not a proper gauge of Butler's potential popularity, as he soon screamed "THIS IS SPARTA!" to the tune of $450 million worldwide. Snyder's green-screened, hyper-violent epic was the vehicle Butler needed to become a household name, his impossibly perfect body and gruff voice now echoing through the dreams of guys and girls all over the globe. Additionally, his turn as King Leonidas was a precursor to what would become his bargain bin action identity – this husky hero who'd put down his sword and pick up a slew of automatic weapons, firing off countless rounds at his adversaries.

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Butler, The Lover

Like Beowulf, Dear Frankie ('05) also came a year before 300, but shouldn't be overlooked the same way that grungy fantasy is. Lizzy (Emily Mortimer) is a mom raising a deaf son (Jack McElhone) by herself after fleeing from her abusive husband. When the kid asks where his dad is, she tells him he works on a ship, and the boy starts sending the man letters (which Lizzy responds to after intercepting them). When a ship bearing the same name as the fictional father's docks in Glasgow, the mother pays a nameless stranger (Butler) to pose as the child's father. It's the set up for a total tearjerker, but ends up a stoically poignant piece of filmmaking, mostly due to the action man's performance.

Sure, there are broad lessons the stranger learns about "becoming a better person" due to his mentoring the young boy, but Butler transforms what could've been an otherwise rote, one note character into a legitimate human being. There's a relatable quality to the former lawyer that allows you to buy him as this blue collar faux papa. But Dear Frankie also alerted everyone to the fact that Butler could play the male lead in either an ostensibly packaged woman's weepie, or the love interest in a mainstream romantic comedy. Remove him from a jungle or suit of armor, and Butler could still sell a grounded reality.

P.S. I Love You ('07) is the American counterpart to Dear Frankie, only instead acting as a guide toward becoming a man in a world full of bullies, Butler's the deceased husband to a grieving wife (Hillary Swank) who can't seem to recover from his untimely expiration. Through a series of messages, Butler's passed away partner lets her know everything is going to be alright in his absence. The movie was a solid hit – grossing $150 million worldwide on a $30 million budget – proving that women didn't just want to trust their kids with Butler, but that he could also be a calming presence in their lives as a boyfriend ideal. At the same time, billboards had just been plastered with his King Leonidas form, letting his adoring female audience know that he was going to protect the castle should anyone try and kick in the door. It was a perfect stormfront, forming a new Sexiest Man Alive.

Butler combined his macho visage with the rom-com heartthrob he'd become, and the results weren't exactly what anyone expected. The Ugly Truth ('09) spends a solid amount of time indulging the crude chauvinistic kicks of morning show host Mike Chadway (Butler), at the expense of Katherine Heigl's lovelorn television producer. It's a rude, anti-PC nothing of a movie, that ended up making $208 million worldwide. Butler and Heigl were a match multiplex audiences wanted to see more of, as there was a real "prim and proper" meets "crass and cunning" dynamic that worked on a base level.

Instead of Heigl, Butler pursues Jennifer Aniston in The Bounty Hunter ('10), which found him literally tracking his fictional ex-wife – a reporter on the trail of a murder cover-up. It's like Midnight Run ('88), but really stupid. Aniston is tapping into the same emotional reserves she used with Vince Vaughn on The Break-Up ('06), but Butler barges through each scene and tosses the actress over his shoulder like a raging caveman. It's a peculiar re-envisioning of the actor's entire personality, as he comes off like the antithesis of everything that made him magnetic in Dear Frankie and P.S. I Love You, rendered all the worse by a lack of chemistry these two movie stars share (despite the fact they were reportedly a "thing" at the time). Maybe The Bounty Hunter was mediocre because Butler's efforts were better spent elsewhere, in an arena where a whole new set of fans awaited him.

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The Birth of a Trash King

Gamer ('09) is a lowbrow action freak out that's bizarre by even its creators' – the Crank ('06) directing duo Neveldine/Taylor – standards. Escaped convicts are chosen to participate in Slayer, a Running Man ('87) style deathmatch where players at home control their deadly movements against one another. As Kable – the game's reigning champ – Butler never quite achieves the deliriously insane heights of Jason Statham's Chev Chelios, but still howls and kills while his off-kilter directors hack their hyperkinetic imagery into a million quick edits, bombarding your senses until you're utterly overwhelmed.

The very same year, Butler stepped into the shoes of Clyde Shelton in F. Gary Gray's Law Abiding Citizen ('09) – a sort of hyper-tech play on Death Wish ('74), where a seemingly innocent man takes revenge on his family's killers, as well as the District Attorney (Jamie Foxx) who helped set one of them free. Even behind bars, Butler is chewing the scenery, revealing Shelton to be much more than the titular good samaritan, as he organizes lethal mechanisms in a manner that would make Jigsaw from the Saw ('04) series jealous. It's a blustery, hambone turn that totally elevates the silly thriller into borderline "trash classic" status.

What Butler's pair of '09 genre gems reveals is a guy totally comfortable with playing to the audience's vilest impulses. While his starring role as One Two in Guy Ritchie's RocknRolla ('08) is slightly more respectable, it seems like he's having a lot more fun taking roles in scripts that aren't afraid to fly off the rails a little bit. As the material goes, so does Butler – a natural showman whose deep, glass-guzzling drawl fits right into the barren wasteland of the Slayer landscape, hollering at his handler (Logan Lerman) to let him loose so that he can survive the necessary thirty rounds by utilizing his unique death-dealing skill set. Any semblance of a romantic lead vanishes completely, leaving only a hulking maniac with murder in his sparkly blue eyes.

Though he'd lend his voice talents to the macho father in the animated smash How to Train Your Dragon ('10), Butler had another bizarre two-fer in Coriolanus ('11) and Machine Gun Preacher ('11). The former found him returning to his stage roots and squaring off in large-caliber Shakespeare against Ralph Fiennes (who also helmed the movie), while the latter saw him as a drug-addicted biker who finds God and leads a slew of Sudanese children to freedom from their oppressors. None of these movies were hugely popular (though Citizen was a modest hit), but instead showcased a guy choosing a new genre path that would lead to the most insane work of his career – a period of reckless actorly abandon that would be a blessing to bloodthirsty viewers the world over.

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Mike Bannon, All American Anti-Hero

The Fallen duology of Olympus Has Fallen ('13) and London Has Fallen ('16) – soon to be a trilogy with Angel Has Fallen ('18) – is one of the nastiest series of entertainment ever delivered unto a mainstream audience. They're ugly, xenophobic throw backs to Chuck Norris' Cannon Films output of the '80s (think: Invasion USA ['85]) that possibly represent a very deep-seated anger that boils beneath the surface of blue collar working class mall-goers who transformed the pictures into rather impressive hits (at least for this sort of action filmmaking). At the center of it all is Butler's deranged Secret Service Agent Mike Banning – a one-man army who protects the President (Aaron Eckhart) against all threats, foreign and domestic. He's a "hero" who can hardly contain his joy every time he stabs a terrorist in the face, a cross between Jason Voorhees and Joe Hallenbeck from The Last Boy Scout ('91). Butler's the reason these movies are utterly amazing, because he creates an amoral death machine where the hero should be.

While Olympus is crazy, London Has Fallen is absolutely out of its f***ing mind, packing enough jingoism and racism into one ninety-minute bullet bonanza to fuel an entire Trump rally. By the time Banning is prowling the streets of Londontown, mowing down legions of terrorists – via rather impressive one-take alley shoot out sequences – it's difficult not to feel sorry for the legions of faceless villains he pumps pounds of lead into. During one of his final fights, Butler delivers the mother of all "rah rah" monologues before banishing his opponent back to "F***headistan":

"You know what you a**holes don't get? We're not a f***ing building! We're not a f***ing flag! We're not just one man! A**holes like you have been trying to kill us for a long f***ing time. But you know what? A thousand years from now, we'll still f***ing be here!"

Admit it: you'd cheer if you didn't have a moral compass. But that's the beauty of these films: they're the apex of Butler's animal magnetism, as he's channeling this recklessly mutated take on an American hero that actually stands for everything that's bad about the United States. Yet he's so good at it, you want to root for him. There's a reason London Has Fallen grossed over $200 million worldwide, and is a mainstay on Netflix: Butler makes this despicable badass compulsively watchable, politics be damned.

Two other schlocky weird outs – Gods Of Egypt ('16) and Geostorm ('17) – attempted to exploit Butler's nutty charisma to the same effect (and Gods is very entertaining, though for other WTF reasons), but do not quite achieve the same glorious insanity of the Fallen films. With Mike Banning, Butler found the perfect character to cram all his idiosyncratic charms into one sociopathic package.

Den of Thieves is the latest Butler adventure, and while the year is still young, it's easily one of the very best pieces of empty calorie entertainment we'll receive in '18. Playing like a Redbox approximation of Michael Mann's Heat ('95), Butler's Major Crimes Lieutenant "Big Nick" Flanagan is a natural extension of Mike Banning – drunk, puffy faced, violent, eating donuts off the ground at crime scenes, and generally acting like the actor's estimation of Al Pacino on blow. Hopefully, Butler stays on this path, as trash cinema lovers need a Patron Saint – a modern slab of pure masculinity, ready to fight or f*** at a moment's notice. God bless him and keep him in our good grimy graces.