Charged with locating—and hopefully rescuing—the crew and passengers of a mysteriously downed commercial airliner in Plane, the former Special Forces operative in control (Tony Goldwyn) asks for some information about the flight’s pilot. His answer comes in the form of a blurry cellphone video of one Captain Brodie Torrance—a hulking brute played by a stubbly Gerard Butler—subduing a drunken, verbally abusive passenger by putting him in a WWE-style choke hold. The smackdown supposedly went viral, which explains why Captain Brodie got demoted to flying across the entire 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 new star vehicle are likable in a ’90s action movie way. Poking holes in the narrative and dramatic contrivance of a movie simply titled Plane is easy enough, beginning with the unlikelihood that an employee could KO a passenger and keep his 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 turn him and the other crash survivors into hostages. Cowritten by British spy novelist Charles Cumming and directed by French genre specialist Jean-François Richet—best known for remaking John Carpenter’s Assault on Precinct 13—Plane is the kind of movie that doesn’t sweat its own credibility (or political correctness) and that leans into predictability at every turn. For instance, you get no points for guessing that Brodie’s most menacing passenger—the bald-domed, dead-eyed convict (Michael Colter) being chaperoned between prisons—is not such a bad guy after all, or that the pair are destined to team up and take out the bad guys commando-style. Nor should you be surprised that Brodie is a widower trying to survive the ordeal for the sake of his precocious, devoted teenage daughter, who just wants her daddy to come home.
Here’s the thing about clichés: A lot of the time, they work. And at 53, Butler has made a pretty nice career out of bending them to his will. In 2019, Vulture’s Bilge Ebiri wrote that the Scottish-born actor—a former law student who broke into the London theater scene in the mid-’90s through sheer force of will before his break in Dracula 2000—was “almost single-handedly keeping a very specific type of movie alive.” While the vast majority of action stars yearn to cross over to other genres, Butler stoically stays in his lane. He’s made the odd romantic comedy, dabbled in period pieces and Shakespeare, and even taken a turn as a brooding show-tune jukebox in Joel Schumacher’s unfortunate big-screen adaptation of The Phantom of the Opera—an early role that nearly torpedoed his momentum before it even got going. But other than those outliers, Butler has been content to cultivate a very particular sweet spot: a rumpled, two-fisted charisma that evokes a whole host of other above-the-title names (Ebiri mentioned Harrison Ford, Bruce Willis, and Liam Neeson as analogues) while retaining a sort of journeyman’s modesty. If he’s prone to going over the top, it’s usually due less to show-offy technique than to a tendency to be cast as guys with short fuses. It’s just fun to watch him go off.
Case in point: 300, which isn’t exactly an actor’s showcase but takes its cues from Butler’s bellowy, abs-first interpretation of King Leonidas. In a 2019 video interview with GQ, Butler revealed that his all-caps line reading of “THIS IS SPARTA” was an in-the-moment instinct and that his costars’ immediate reaction was to laugh it off—an anecdote that says something interesting about Butler’s instincts and director Zack Snyder’s as well. The only reason 300 works is because Butler refuses to split hairs between looking intimidating and looking ridiculous; in a movie that fuses fleshy physicality and anodyne CGI at a molecular level, he stylizes himself into a special effect. The same goes for 2009’s Gamer, a startlingly unpleasant and underrated sci-fi satire by the filmmaking duo of Mark Neveldine and Brian Taylor, who followed up giving Jason Statham the role of a lifetime in Crank by harnessing Butler’s roughneck credentials for a VR-themed variation on The Running Man. Playing a death-row inmate who staves off his execution by acting as a “slayer”—a living, breathing human avatar for wealthy online video gamers—Butler showcases the requisite intensity to not only survive Neveldine and Taylor’s frenetic editing style, but to ground it as well.
Gamer is an extremely funny movie that benefits from Butler’s aggrieved sense of not being in on the joke, but comedy is in his wheelhouse. While history has not yet totally redeemed 2013’s notorious all-star comic anthology film Movie 43—a winner of multiple Razzies that was dunked on eagerly by mainstream critics like Richard Roeper—it has some riotously good bits, including the one about a pair of roommates (Johnny Knoxville and Seann William Scott) who capture a foulmouthed leprechaun and invoke the (first verbal, and then physical) wrath of his twin brother; both leprechauns are played by Butler in a profane tour de force. The bit, titled “Happy Birthday,” doesn’t ever transcend the one-joke premise of a miniaturized Butler spouting four-letter words in a thick Highlands brogue, but it doesn’t have to because the one joke is so potent: Humor is subjective, but a two-foot-tall Gerard Butler popping out of a pot of gold and firing twin revolvers while asking his rivals to taste his Celtic steel is a universal language.
In the same year as Movie 43, Butler starred in Olympus Has Fallen, one of two contemporaneous thrillers about a terrorist invasion of the White House. While Roland Emmerich’s White House Down was a delirious Obama-era fantasy featuring Jamie Foxx as an African American POTUS defending his turf from white nationalists and deep-state turncoats, Antoine Fuqua’s Olympus Has Fallen reached back to the xenophobia of the ’80s, essentially restaging Red Dawn with North Korea in place 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 looking for redemption. He finds it by becoming a Beltway version of John McClane, dispatching bad guys in increasingly brutal ways. “I’m gonna stick my knife through your brain,” he promises the main villain; suffice it to say that, whatever its other virtues, Olympus Has Fallen ensures that its hero remains a man of his word.
Admittedly, Mike Banning isn’t a household name like John McClane or Jack Ryan, but Butler has hung tough for two sequels: London Has Fallen (guess where it’s set) and Angel Has Fallen, which took its place in the canon of grizzled-male-bonding melodramas by casting no less than Nick Nolte as the star’s estranged father, resulting in unprecedented levels of testosterone. As a paycheck, the Fallen films are steady stuff, but as far as actual great roles go, Butler’s claim to action movie Valhalla resides in 2018’s Den of Thieves, aptly described by The Ringer’s Shea Serrano as an “underappreciated heist movie masterpiece” and, at a very different point on the cinephile spectrum, praised by German auteur Christian Petzold, who claimed that 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 is no Michael Mann doesn’t mean it isn’t fun to watch him try his best, while Butler—cast as a swaggering, ethically flexible Major Crimes Unit investigator named “Big” Nick O’Brien—scrapes the same bad-cop stratosphere as Denzel Washington in Training Day. There’s a shades of gray quality to the storytelling in Den of Thieves that shouldn’t be undersold. While Butler is technically the film’s protagonist—a master of taking down violent bank robbers—he’s also borderline monstrous in ways that make us genuinely uncomfortable, only he’s so magnetic that he keeps winning us back on the rebound. He’s pumped up and broken down behind tired eyes, and his rhythms are so unpredictable that Den of Thieves keeps peaking in what another movie might waste as 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 real pathos—like when addressing his ex’s new boyfriend about the consequences of coming into contact with his daughters—is impressive, while Nick’s final gesture of hugging it out with his terrified beta-male quarry is as perfectly executed as his sarcastic, self-implicating, all-smiles exit line to the guests: “Call the fucking cops.”
There’s no equivalent highlight in Plane and not much shading in the Captain Brodie Torrance character. Once we perceive that he’s a tough, solid, dependable guy—that, basically, he’s there to be liked—it’s just a matter of sitting back and letting Butler do his thing. Still, a couple of moments stand out and cut through the passive, generic pleasures of the film. In one, after getting ambushed in an abandoned warehouse by a gun-toting henchman, Brodie is forced to apply a lethal headlock—a bit of choreography that recalls and doubles down on his long-ago on-the-job snafu. Pulling himself to his feet, Butler looks genuinely dazed and confused to have taken a life, a small acknowledgment of mortality in a movie that has an exponentially rising body count. In another, we see a bleeding, battered Brodie ask for a minute of respite in the aftermath of an unlikely but successful Hail Mary plan to save the lives of those around him. When he finally sits down, it’s with the difficulty of a man nursing severe injuries but also quietly basking in the satisfaction of a job well done. It’s a moment of quiet dignity, one that gives Plane a final shot worthy of its star.
Adam Nayman is a film critic, teacher, and author based in Toronto; his book The Coen Brothers: This Book Really Ties the Films Together is available now from Abrams.