Saluting Gerard Butler, the Spartan king of B movies

The genre of B grade action movies is full of bulky blokes who come and go in a heartbeat. Some, however, like the formidable Gerard Butler, stay at the top for a while. Travis Johnson salutes the Spartan king of B movies. 

Fans who keep an eye on what’s going on in the B movie world know that it’s dead man’s shoes in the action movie idiom, with would-be war heroes of every stripe, type and nationality slugging it out for dominance. But every so often there’s a guy who rises to the top and stays there for a while.

No-one stays for long; they either ascend to bona fide blockbuster stardom – your Schwarzeneggers, Stallones, Rocks and, arguably, Stathams – or slip back down into direct-to-video (direct to streaming now, I guess) ignominy – your Van Dammes, Seagals, and Lundgrens. The turnover is frenetic, the competition furious, and the taste of the audience surprisingly fickle. Poor old Jean-Claude went from high-kicking hero to has-been in a heartbeat.

However, there’s one guy who has been king of the action ring for a while: Scottish actor Gerard Butler. The hunky Hibernian has been a regular presence on our screens for about 20 years now. However it’s only of late that he’s become the de facto bull goose loony of the bro-movie milieu, bestriding such dubious “classics” as sub-Heat heist thriller, Den of Thieves, sub-The Hunt for Red October submarine thriller, Hunter Killer, and the Die-Hard-if-John-McClane-was-a-bit-racist Fallen trilogy. Its third instalment, Angel Has Fallen, has crashed into cinemas.

It wasn’t always this way, of course. In his younger days, Butler showed a fair bit of range, cutting his teeth on supporting roles in the likes of period drama Mrs. Brown (1997) and Bond flick Tomorrow Never Dies (1997) before working his way up to bigger parts. He was Christian Bale’s offsider in apocalyptic dragon drama Reign of Fire (2002), Lara Croft’s love interest in Tomb Raider: The Cradle of Life (2003) and, rather bafflingly in hindsight, The Phantom of the Opera himself in the ill-judged big screen version of the hit musical (2004).

He was fine in all of them, even when the films themselves weren’t up to snuff. But early period Butler was too often like a knife being used as a screwdriver – simply the wrong tool for the job. Really, look at the guy: even when he’s not bulked up for an actioner, Butler is a big, buff, rough-hewn customer who looks like he instinctively knows how to throw an axe.

Dropping him into a romcom, even one where he gets to be a bounty hunter (that’d be 2010’s The Bounty Hunter, opposite Jennifer Aniston) is a waste of his talents. This is a guy born to cleave skulls – or at least, given he’s an actor and not a serial killer, to look like he could cleave skulls.

Luckily for action movie fans around the world, casting directors began picking up on the big fella’s skull-cleaving vibe, and Butler’s career got on track with a string of historical actioners. He’s the best thing in both Richard Donner’s medieval time travel adventure, Timeline (2003) and the troubled Viking monster movie, Beowulf & Grendel (2005). It was 2006’s 300, however, that changed everything.

Once big, beefy Butler bellowed “THIS! IS! SPARTA!” it was, to coin a phrase, all over bar the shouting. Directed by Zack Snyder and adapted from the comics by Frank Miller (Sin City, Batman: The Dark Knight Returns), 300 was a none-more-manly (and unwittingly homoerotic) mythopoeic account of the Battle of Thermopylae, where 300 Spartan warriors held off a vast Persian army long enough for the Greek city states to get their act together, getting slaughtered almost to a single man in the process (David Wenham survives to tell the tale). Seeing beardy Butler as Spartan King Leonidas leading his men into battle and butchering hordes of Persians in stunning slow-mo, it all clicked into place: Butler was born to brutalise.

Sometimes he forgets that, the big lug. And so we get digressions like the rom-coms The Ugly Truth (2009) and Playing for Keeps (2012). He was also one of a couple dozen celebs who should know better that woke up one day to find themselves in Movie 43 (2013).

But really, the path is now set. The Gerry Butler we know and love is the aggrieved vigilante of Law Abiding Citizen (2009), the hypermasculine corrupt cop of Den of Thieves, even the grandstanding God of the Underworld in Gods of Egypt – a mess of a film, to be sure. But if you can’t enjoy Butler playing Set with the broadest Scottish burr imaginable, you can’t enjoy life.

Butler’s key charm is the fact that he exudes a kind of everyman, workaday attitude, even when he’s the bronzed and buff Leonidas or the carved-from-oak supercop Nick O’Brien in Den of Thieves. It’s a type of charisma not too far removed from what early career Bruce Willis used to exude, making him more relatable than the far more capable head-kickers currently doing the rounds: Iko Uwais and Joe Taslim (The Raid), Michael Jai White (Falcon Rising), even Scott Adkins (Ninja, Hard Target 2). These are performers whose supreme martial arts skills put them on a plane that’s inaccessible to the average punter.

Butler, however, feels like a guy you could have a beer with (although the actor himself apparently doesn’t indulge). Even when the characters he’s playing are effectively superhuman, Butler’s sheer enjoyment at embodying these guys shines through. He’s clearly having a blast, and that’s infectious.

This extends to what is now unarguably his signature series, the deeply #problematic and deeply enjoyable Fallen series: Olympus Has Fallen (2013), London Has Fallen (2016), and now Angel Has Fallen (2019). Our guy plays unstoppable Secret Service Agent Mike Banning, who is much given to stabbing terrorists in the head.

Banning’s an absolute murder machine with a fairly unsophisticated grasp on multiculturalism. I laughed like a drain at him telling a terrorist to “Go back to Fuckheadistan”, but your mileage may vary. Appalling politics often make for appealing action, though, and the core fantasy of any action flick, from Iron Man to Death Wish, is that one guy with the right weapons can impose his morality on the world, and that this should be celebrated.

The Fallen films at least have the courage to be absolutely brutal. The action scenes in these things border on slasher movie fare. Part of the fun – if it’s your idea of fun – is seeing exactly how much carnage our man Banning will wreak in defence of the White House, or London, or whatever the heck is on the line in the latest effort. Given what has gone before, only disembowelment or decapitation will suffice.

Yes, it’s all more than a bit reactionary and regressive. These films plug right into some deep, primal, drives, lusts and fears. The fact that they and others like them remain perennially popular doesn’t really say anything good about the human animal as a moral being. But you know what? That’s okay. There’s always going to be a market for brutal, unsophisticated, atavistic action flicks.

It’s an itch that will always need to be scratched, and Butler is somehow able to sell the idea that someone capable of inflicting the kind of horrifying damage regularly meted out in these films is also someone we’d want to spend time with, and not a drooling maniac. He’s your mate down the pub who also just happens to know how to blind someone with his thumbs. He’s the king of the castle and, right now, it’s good to be the king.