The latest Gerard Butler actioner, “Plane,” lifts off this weekend, a brawny thriller that knows just what it is and delivers on that promise. It makes for an opportunity to take a perusal through Butler’s career, as he’s settled comfortably into his mid-budget action hero role in the past decade, with the results often more entertaining than not.
Though Butler appeared as Dracula in “Dracula 2000” (streaming on Starz), cropped up in Angelina’s Jolie’s “Tomb Raider” sequel “Cradle of Life” in 2003 (streaming on HBO Max), and co-starred as the Phantom in Joel Schumacher’s 2005 “Phantom of the Opera” (available to rent on all platforms), it seems the world didn’t much sit up and take notice of Butler as a major star until Zack Snyder stripped him down to his skivvies to play King Leonidas in “300” (rent it on all platforms), which became a phenomenon back in 2006.
Despite his success as the Spartan general, Butler’s newfound stardom took him down the rom-com path for awhile, as he put in turns opposite Hilary Swank in “P.S. I Love You” in 2007 (rent on all platforms), Katherine Heigl in 2009’s “The Ugly Truth” (streaming on Starz or available to rent), and Jennifer Aniston in 2010 in “The Bounty Hunter” (streaming on Hulu and available to rent). During this era, he managed to star in the wacky video game action thriller “Gamer” (2009), directed by Mark Neveldine and Brian Taylor (stream it on Netflix, Prime Video and Hulu).
But in recent years, Butler has stayed in a specific lane, and if you’re a fan of that lane, his work is quite satisfying. Often, it’s “Gerard Butler Saves The World,” quite literally, in “Greenland” (2020), when he outdrives an asteroid hitting the Earth. If it sounds insane, it is, but “Greenland” is also better than it has any right to be (stream it on HBO Max), which is par for the course with the latest Butler blockbusters.
There’s 2018’s “Hunter Killer,” a zippy submarine thriller in the vein of “The Hunt for Red October” or “Crimson Tide,” in which Butler captains a sub through treacherous waters in order to prevent a coup in Russia (rent it on all platforms). Or, there’s his role as Secret Service agent Mike Banning in the bloody, bombastic “Has Fallen” trilogy, comprised of “Olympus Has Fallen” (2013) (rent it) “London Has Fallen” (2016) (streaming on Netflix) and “Angel Has Fallen” (2019) (rent it), in which Butler plays a Secret Service agent with a very specific set of skills (single-handedly preventing terrorists from attacking world leaders).
In between all those “Has Fallens,” Butler co-starred in Alex Proyas’ delightfully campy and over-the-top take on ancient mythology, “Gods of Egypt” (2016) in which Butler (a Scotsman), Nikolaj Coster-Waldau (a Dane) and Geoffrey Rush (an Aussie) play a bunch of Egyptian gods. It’s completely daffy but so much fun. Rent it on all platforms.
Often, Butler is even more fun to watch when he’s breaking bad, such as in 2009’s “Law Abiding Citizen,” directed by F. Gary Gray and co-starring Jamie Foxx (stream it on HBO Max), in which Butler plays a grieving man who takes justice into his own hands.
But Butler’s most entertaining recent action role might be in Christian Gudegast’s underrated “Heat” knockoff “Den of Thieves,” which sees Butler eating a donut out of a bloodied box in the middle of a crime scene, chopping it up in a Benihana opposite a hulked-out Pablo Schreiber, and shouting into a phone, “they’re addicted to heists!” In “Den of Thieves,” Butler is the chaotic cop in the vein of Al Pacino’s Vincent Hanna; Schreiber is a Long Beach-bred Neil McCauley on steroids. The two circle each other then clash in a downtown L.A. bank heist/shootout and it’s wildly entertaining (if you like that kind of thing). Stream it on Netflix to cap off your Butler binge.
(Katie Walsh is the Tribune News Service film critic and co-host of the "Miami Nice" podcast.)