Tasked with locating – and hopefully rescuing – the crew and passengers of a commercial airliner mysteriously shot down in Airplane, the former special forces agent in command (Tony Goldwyn) asks for information about the pilot of the flight. His response comes in the form of a fuzzy cellphone video of a Captain Brodie Torrance – a hulking brute played by a stocky Gerard Butler – subduing a drunk and verbally abusive passenger into a chokehold-style hold. WWE. The smackdown is supposed to have gone viral, which explains why Captain Brodie was demoted to fly across the Pacific in bad weather on New Year’s Eve. The airline’s publicist is horrified, but Goldwyn’s military man smiles. “I like this guy.”
It’s a ’90s action movie line, and Butler and his starring new vehicle are likable in ’90s action movie fashion. Punching holes in the narrative and dramatic artifice of a simply titled film Airplane is easy enough, starting with the unlikelihood of an employee being able to knock out a passenger and keep their license and extending to the fact that our hero is later able to hold his own against waves of heavily armed Filipino militiamen trying to outrun him. turning him and the other survivors of the crash into hostages. Co-written by British spy novelist Charles Cumming and directed by French genre specialist Jean-François Richet, best known for remaking John Carpenter’s Assault on Compound 13—Airplane is the kind of movie that doesn’t sweat its own credibility (or political correctness) and leans into predictability at every turn. For example, you get zero points if you guess that Brodie’s most menacing passenger – the bald, dead-eyed convict (Michael Colter) chaperoned between prisons – isn’t such a bad guy after all, or that the pair is meant to team up and take down bad guys like a commando. You also shouldn’t be surprised that Brodie is a widower trying to survive the ordeal for the sake of his precocious and devoted teenage daughter, who just wants her father to come home.
Here’s the problem with cliches: Most of the time, they work. And at 53, Butler has had a fine career bending them to his will. In 2019, Vultureit is Bilge Ebiri wrote that the Scottish-born actor – a former law student who burst onto the London theater scene in the mid-1990s by force of will before his break-in Dracula 2000– was “almost single-handedly keeping a very specific kind of film alive.” While the vast majority of action stars yearn to move on to other genres, Butler stoically stays in his lane. He’s done funny romantic comedies, dabbled in period plays and Shakespeare, and even played a brooding jukebox role in Joel Schumacher’s ill-fated big-screen adaptation of The Phantom of the Opera-a first role that almost torpedoed its momentum before it even started. But those outliers aside, Butler was content to cultivate a very particular sweet spot: a wrinkled two-fisted charisma that conjures up a whole host of other names above the title (Ebiri mentioned Harrison Ford, Bruce Willis and Liam Neeson analogues) while maintaining a kind of companion modesty. If he tends to overdo it, it’s usually less due to parrying technique and more to a tendency to get picked on like guys with short locks. It’s just fun to watch him go.
Example : 300, which isn’t exactly an actor’s showcase, but is inspired by Butler’s bellowing, abs-infused rendition of King Leonidas. In a 2019 video interview with QG, Butler revealed that his all-caps reading of ‘THIS IS SPARTA’ was an instinct of the moment and his teammates’ immediate reaction was to laugh at it – an anecdote that says something interesting about Butler’s instincts and the director. Zack Snyder as well. The only reason 300 works, it’s because Butler refuses to divide the hair between looking intimidating and looking ridiculous; in a film that merges meaty physicality and innocuous CGI on a molecular level, it stylizes into a special effect. Same for 2009 player, a surprisingly obnoxious and underrated sci-fi satire from filmmaking duo Mark Neveldine and Brian Taylor, who later gave Jason Statham the role of a lifetime in Crank mining Butler’s raw references for a virtual reality-themed variation on The running man. Playing a death row inmate who avoids execution by acting as a “killer” – a living, breathing human avatar for wealthy online video gamers – Butler shows the intensity required not only to survive Neveldine and Taylor’s frenetic editing style , but also to root that too.
player is a wildly funny film that benefits from Butler’s aggrieved sense of not being in on the joke, but the comedy is in its wheelhouse. While history has yet to fully redeem the acclaimed 2013 comedy anthology film Movie 43– a winner of multiple Razzies that has been eagerly drenched by mainstream critics like Richard Roeper – it has some great bits, including one about a pair of roommates (Johnny Knoxville and Seann William Scott) who capture a rude and invoke the (first verbal, then physical anger) of his twin brother; the two pixies are played by Butler in a secular tour de force. The track, titled “Happy Birthday,” never transcends the joke premise of a miniaturized butler spouting four-letter words in a thick Highland brogue, but that’s not necessary because the one joke is so powerful: Humor is subjective, but a two-foot-tall Gerard Butler emerging from a pot of gold and firing twin revolvers while asking his rivals to taste his Celtic steel is a universal language.
The same year as Movie 43, Butler starred in Olympus has fallen, one of two contemporary thrillers about a terrorist invasion of the White House. While Roland Emmerich white house down was a delusional Obama-era fantasy starring Jamie Foxx as an African-American POTUS defending his turf against white nationalists and Deep State defectors, that of Antoine Fuqua Olympus has fallen traced back to the xenophobia of the 80s, essentially re-enacting Red Dawn with North Korea instead of the USSR. Meanwhile, Butler’s character Mike Banning is a spiritual descendant of Clint Eastwood in In the line of fire, a disgraced Secret Service agent seeking redemption. He finds it by becoming a Beltway version of John McClane, dispatching bad guys in increasingly brutal ways. “I’ll stick my knife in your brain,” he promises the main villain; suffice it to say that, whatever its other virtues, Olympus has fallen ensures that his hero remains a man of his word.
Granted, Mike Banning isn’t a household name like John McClane or Jack Ryan, but Butler held on for two sequels: London has fallen (guess where it is) and The angel has fallen, who took his place in the canon of grizzled-male bonding melodramas by playing no less than Nick Nolte as the star’s estranged father, driving unprecedented levels of testosterone. As a paycheck, the Fallen movies are stable, but when it comes to big real-life roles, Butler’s claim to action movie Valhalla lies in the 2018s den of thieveswell described by The ringit is Shea Serrano as an “underrated heist movie masterpiece” and, at a very different point on the cinephile spectrum, hailed by German author Christian Petzold, who claimed he even preferred it to Heat.
With apologies to Petzold, den of thieves is not a better movie than Heat– it’s more like the We Have Food at Home version of Heat. That’s a compliment, by the way: just because director Christian Gudegast isn’t Michael Mann doesn’t mean it’s not fun to watch him do his best, while Butler, cast as an investigator swaggering and ethically flexible major crimes unit named “Big” Nick O’Brien – scratches the same stratosphere of bad cops as Denzel Washington in training day. There are shades of gray quality to the storytelling in den of thieves it shouldn’t be undersold. Although Butler is technically the film’s protagonist – a master at taking down violent bank robbers – he’s also borderline monstrous in a way that really makes us feel uncomfortable, but he’s so magnetic that it continues to win us back on the rebound. It’s pumped up and broken down behind tired eyes, and its rhythms are so unpredictable that den of thieves continues to climax in what another film could lose in downtime – take, for example, the scene in which a drunken, belligerent Nick interrupts his wife’s dinner party to sign their divorce papers. The way Butler modulates the tone between menacing comedy and genuine pathos – such as when he addresses his ex’s new boyfriend about the consequences of coming into contact with his daughters – is impressive, while the final gesture of Nick embracing her with his terrified beta-male career is as perfectly executed as his sarcastic, self-involved, all-smiles exit line to guests: “Call the fuckin’ cops.”
There is no equivalent climax in Airplane and not much shading in the character of Captain Brodie Torrance. Once we perceive that he’s a tough, solid, dependable guy – that he’s basically there to be loved – it’s just a matter of sitting back and letting Butler do his thing. Still, a few moments stand out and cut through the film’s passive, generic pleasures. In one, after being ambushed in an abandoned warehouse by an armed henchman, Brodie is forced to apply a deadly headlock – a bit of choreography that recalls and doubles down on his snafu at work long ago. . Rising to his feet, Butler looks genuinely dazed and confused at having taken a life, a small acknowledgment of mortality in a film that has exponentially increasing body counts. In another, we see a bleeding and battered Brodie asking for a minute’s respite following an unlikely but successful plan by Hail Mary to save the lives of those around him. When he finally sits down, it is with the difficulty of a man who treats serious injuries but also who basks quietly in the satisfaction of a job well done. It’s a moment of quiet dignity, one that gives Airplane a last shot worthy of its star.
Adam Nyman is a Toronto-based film critic, teacher and author; his book The Coen Brothers: This Book Truly Ties the Movies Together is available now from Abrams.