The Campy Masculine Pleasures of Gerard Butler
Butler has been making nostalgic, midbudget action films so steadily, for so long, that he has perfected his own formula.
Images and themes from “300” recur across Butler’s films. There’s loyalty to the homeland and its defenders, the passing of “respect and honor” from father to son, soft homophobia toward “philosophers and boy-lovers” by half-naked alpha males, stoicism, nurturing women, “no mercy” conflicts with foreigners, heroic sacrifices, David-and-Goliath battles. “I’m just a law-abiding citizen — I’m just a regular guy,” Butler says in “Law-Abiding Citizen,” which came out three years after “300.” In that one, an engineer named Clyde Shelton sees his wife and daughter killed in front of him, but the biggest wound comes from the justice system, via a prosecutor played by Jamie Foxx. Clyde responds with a bit of a killing spree, pledging to bring the whole “diseased corrupt temple” down on the lawyer’s head — “It’s gonna be biblical.”
It’s the trilogy of “Olympus Has Fallen,” “London Has Fallen” and “Angel Has Fallen,” with their combined box office of $522 million, that consolidated Butler’s brand as the kind of modest action star who has largely gone missing from theaters. In these movies, the Secret Service agent Mike Banning, growing increasingly broken down over time, protects the president from various disposable terrorists. He runs on steaks, and later on painkillers, and always ends up battered, emerging into the light propping up a commander in chief who says something like: “They came to desecrate our way of life. To foul our beliefs. Trample our freedom. And in this, not only did they fail, they granted us the greatest gift—a chance at our rebirth.”
If this sounds as if it springs from a conservative imagination, well, the franchise’s multicultural goons and deep-state conspiracies would certainly be familiar to that audience. But while Butler is the kind of guy who gets invited to the Pentagon to promote a thriller about Navy SEALs, his stance on these films is more rough and ready. Facing criticism for “London Has Fallen,” he argued at the premiere that “It’s about us winning” and “It’s based on heroism and the good guys kicking ass.” This generalized machismo maintains its appeal even when his films veer more mainstream — dropping the jingoism for “Angel Has Fallen” or, in 2017’s “Geostorm,” taking a cuckoo disaster-movie ride. In 2018’s “Den of Thieves,” where the masculinity is just dense enough to dilute the toxicity, he plays a leather-clad cop who swigs Pepto like whiskey and works to bring down some ex-Marines who aim to rob the Federal Reserve. In “Greenland,” he’s another engineer in another disaster, racing to get his family to a bunker (and refusing, in individualist American fashion, to help his neighbors). This January’s “Plane” was positively communist by comparison, with the tagline “survive together or die alone.” In that one, he’s a commercial pilot with an Air Force background whose jet crashes on a Filipino island held by separatists. There remain the obvious conservative themes — untrustworthy superiors, renegade saviors, barbaric foreigners — but it’s the perfect all-audience Butler, a propulsive popcorn flick with a righteous core.
Maybe it’s inevitable that the same guy who keeps revolting onscreen would do the same off it. Butler hasn’t appeared on a mainstream magazine cover since 2018. He seems to have smarted a little when, in a January interview, Inverse called him “the King of the B-movie” to his face. He knows he has a large audience, but I wonder if he knows quite how much good will he has accumulated. In “Kandahar,” he plays an undercover operative exposed by a leak “bigger than Snowden and WikiLeaks combined,” in a script packed with “free world” jokes and aphorisms like “you have to return home to know what you’re fighting for.” ” But I genuinely felt chills at the ending, a lachrymose montage in which the blue-eyed soul of Tom Rhodes’s “Low Tide” plays over shots of Butler and his translator, finally safe, intercut with sentimental scenes of their loved ones. It’s cheap, but there’s a good heart in there, and that’s hard to come by these days.