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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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