It’s a legitimate question to ask as we prepare to enter the second consecutive weekend of major mainstream releases featuring the Scotsman. Gerard Butler longs to prove that he’s one of the action greats, maybe the great of his generation. Of course, he lacks the full-on assaultive appeal of his closest contemporary, Jason Statham, who has kicked and glowered his way through a series of adrenaline-quenching mash-ups. And then there’s the pesky presence of Liam Neeson, looming large over the genre. Everyone, especially when you consider the old-school combo of Stallone and Schwarzenegger with Bruce Willis in tow leading The Expendables charge, assumed the torch would be passed down from the late-1980s/early-1990s heroes, so Neeson appears to be enjoying his role as spoiler.
Butler has been content to play the waiting game. His first real breakthrough came as King Leonidas, leading the suicide squad charge of Spartans in 300. Aided by the slow-mo comic book framing of Zack Snyder (prior to his emergence as the visual godfather of the DC film multiverse), Butler dominated the film, battle-hardened and glistening in the soft-focus glow of those action-porn set pieces like a conquering demigod. But it seemed he wanted to prove that he was more than a fighter, so he launched himself at the rom-com world with similar abandon. Yet his fervor didn’t translate as well in limp affairs like P.S. I Love You and The Ugly Truth.
He stumbled back into the action game with the amateurish Gamer and Law Abiding Citizen, a middling thriller co-starring Jamie Foxx. The likely thinking was that Butler was too big for the material, his gruff brawling manner too outsized for the former and too raw and unrefined for the latter.
He made a feint to more dramatic fare with Coriolanus, director and star Ralph Fiennes’ modern bloody shakeup of Shakespeare, and there was a glimmer of what Butler could achieve with the right merger of smolder and sense and sensibility, but the film never transitioned from the indie world.
Machine Gun Preacher found him continuing the chase for that elusive, big sustaining breakthrough. Thus far, his best bet has come from lending his powerfully accented voice to the How to Train Your Dragon franchise, where the animated frames seem best able to match his cartoonish bluster.
Alex Proyas, the director of The Crow, I, Robot and the latest Clash of the Titans-styled mythic knockoff, Gods of Egypt, convinced Butler to go big — literally — as the desert god Set, intent on seizing command of an ancient reimaging of Egypt where larger-than-life gods reside alongside humanity in a gleaming city of gold. Gods of Egypt has all the empty spectacle one would expect without a trace of the heart and soul of the Dragons movies or even 300, which no one would ever mistake for an accurate representation of human drama. But it does offer more than enough digital manipulation of Butler, lording over what are probably vacant green-screened sets.
And now, he follows that huge letdown with another go-round in London Has Fallen, the sequel to 2013’s Olympus Has Fallen, which featured him as a down-on-his-luck Secret Service agent protecting a virile American president (Aaron Eckhart) when the White House comes under attack. The London iteration sends the pair across the pond for the funeral of the British prime minister, only now he must fend off an impossibly coordinated terrorist attack that strikes down several world leaders. This should feel like tried and true stuff, a no-brainer to prop Butler up until the next big thing.
But once again, the material and execution winds up feeling small and far too predictable; the only thing missing would be the corny punch lines that Stallone and company used to stick the landings back in the day. Iranian filmmaker Babak Najafi has already made a name for himself, directing the second film in the international urban thriller series Easy Money, and he brings that level of seriousness to London Has Fallen. Are we so narrow-minded that we’ve forgotten how campy these action knockoffs were?
What Butler needs is a gritty detour, like John Hillcoat’s Triple 9, a B-movie gloriously (and quite conflictingly) wallowing in equal measures of violent excess and cool detachment. And Kate Winslet could teach him a thing or two about how the slow burn can set you up for far bigger prizes down the road. (tt stern-enzi)