Total Recall

Total Recall: Gerard Butler's Best Movies

We count down the best-reviewed work of the Playing for Keeps star.

by | December 6, 2012 | Comments

Gerard Butler

The rest of the heavy hitters Hollywood has planned for us in 2012 are being stored away until later in December, but Gerard Butler can’t wait — he’s back in theaters this weekend with his latest rom-com, Playing for Keeps. Although its Tomatometer fate can probably be guessed by the fact that it isn’t being screened for critics, don’t feel too badly for Butler — his filmography has plenty of critical highlights to fall back on, and this week’s list offers proof. From period drama to family-friendly fantasy and bone-crunching action, he’s stayed plenty busy over the last 15 years and change — and now it’s time to pay tribute, Total Recall style!


10. Reign of Fire

The only film to combine the acting might of Gerard Butler, Matthew McConaughey, and Christian Bale with the special-effects majesty of fire-breathing dragons and the giddy thrill of witnessing a post-apocalyptic dystopian future, 2002’s Reign of Fire had a lot going for it. After all, it isn’t every day filmgoers get to watch British construction workers accidentally open an underground cave full of dragons, triggering 10 years of panic, death, and mayhem — or watch an axe-wielding McConaughey leap into the mouth of one of the filthy beasts. Unfortunately, while Fire proved a medium-sized box office hit, most critics felt it squandered all the potential of its premise on a movie that sacrificed compelling story in favor of eye-popping visual effects. For Entertainment Weekly’s Lisa Schwarzbaum, however, that was precisely the point — as she argued in her review, “The season could do with more grinning, spinning, un-self-important, happy-to-be-B throwback movies like this one.”


9. Beowulf & Grendel

Two years before Angelina Jolie exerted a disconcerting level of mo-cap sexitude in 2007’s more succinctly titled Beowulf, Gerard Butler played the titular warrior in director Sturla Gunnarsson’s Beowulf & Grendel, a beautifully filmed retelling of the ancient saga about the generations-spanning grudge that erupts after a Danish king (Stellan Skarsgård) slays a troublesome creature that’s been pestering his lands, only to let its offspring go free. He lives to regret this decision after the orphan grows up to be Grendel (Ingvar Sigurdsson), who returns to terrorize the kingdom and can only be stopped by the fearless Beowulf (Butler). Despite its impressive scenery and unimpeachable source material, most critics were unmoved by Beowulf & Grendel, and after scoring with Canadian filmgoers, it sputtered out quickly in U.S. theaters. Their loss, according to William Arnold of the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, who wrote, “Shot entirely in the outback of Iceland, it’s a gallery of hauntingly beautiful locations, and director Sturla Gunnarsson skillfully uses its bleak otherworldliness to distance us from anything familiar and evoke a lost heroic age.”


8. Harrison’s Flowers

While far from his biggest role, Butler’s brief turn as Chris Kumac in the Elie Chouraqui-directed war drama Harrison’s Flowers added to his early film résumé while giving him a chance to share space in the closing credits with a long list of solid actors, including Elias Koteas, Brendan Gleeson, and Adrien Brody — not to mention David Strathairn, who played photojournalist Harrison Lloyd, and Andie MacDowell, who plays the wife that travels overseas to search for him after his presumed death in a building collapse. Clearly, Harrison’s Flowers contained the seeds for a powerful drama; unfortunately, most critics felt that the movie zoomed past it and soared straight into soggy melodrama. But that wasn’t enough to deter Robert W. Butler of the Kansas City Star, who argued, “Despite its melodramatic framework and thin characterizations, the movie does deliver an unforgettable sense of the desperate civil conflicts that seem to be a recurrent phenomenon of our troubled times.”


7. Nim’s Island

On paper, Nim’s Island had a lot going for it: A solid cast, strong visuals, and bestselling, family-friendly source material in Wendy Orr’s book about a young girl (Abigail Breslin) forced to seek help from an agoraphobic adventure author (Jodie Foster) after a shipwreck strands the girl’s scientist father (Butler). Unfortunately, things didn’t exactly work out the way they were supposed to when the movie kicked off its theatrical run in April 2008 — while it easily recouped its $37 million budget with a $100 million worldwide gross, reviews and word of mouth were disappointingly lukewarm. That isn’t to say the movie was without its defenders, however — including USA Today’s Claudia Puig, who wrote, “Nim’s Island is a win-win proposition: an entertaining, diverting adventure saga that offers excitement and a relatable heroine for children, and also will remind their parents of favorite classics from their own youth.”


6. RocknRolla

He’s returned to Fresh territory with his Sherlock Holmes movies, but for awhile there, it looked like Guy Ritchie’s post-Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels career was going to be a study in diminishing critical returns. Case in point: 2008’s RocknRolla, a London-set action thriller about a group of scuzzy underworld types including a crimelord (Tom Wilkinson), unscrupulous accountant (Thandie Newton), rough-and-tumble thug (Butler), and punk musician (Toby Kebbell) who only stop shooting long enough to betray their supposed allies. Familiar territory for Ritchie, but most critics found RocknRolla a case of style at the expense of substance. For others, however, that was more than enough: As Michael O’Sullivan put it for the Washington Post, “Style is what RocknRolla is all about. And it has it in spades, from the cockney Pulp Fiction dialogue to the music-video editing of the rambling narrative.”


5. 300

Arguably the most gloriously ab-riffic swords ‘n’ sandals action epic ever filmed, Zack Snyder’s 300 blended newfangled bluescreen technology with time-tested bloody murder to produce a fictionalized adaptation of the Battle of Thermopylae. Working from Frank Miller’s comic series of the same name, Snyder pulled out all the stops in pursuit of a faithful reproduction of his source material — and the results worked so well that, combined with 2005’s similarly striking, also Miller-inspired Sin City, they briefly seemed to usher in a new era of hyper-visual graphic novel adaptations. A $210 million box office hit, 300 was less of a sure thing with critics, but it carried enough firepower for Richard Roeper, who called it “Excessively, cheerfully violent — and it is gorgeous to behold. It looks like the world’s most sophisticated and expensive video game, and I mean that in a good way.”


4. Dear Frankie

One of the reasons Butler’s been such an alluring target for directors of romantic comedies is his ability to convey rough edges and soulful tenderness in equal measure — and anyone who thought those qualities would save movies like The Bounty Hunter, and learned the hard way that they couldn’t, would do well to check out 2004’s Dear Frankie, starring Butler as an anonymous seaman who agrees to help a single mother (Emily Mortimer) preserve the long-running lie that her son’s (Jack McElhone) father is a sailor on a ship that just happens to be docking in town. Sweet and mournful, Frankie failed to make much of a dent at the box office, but it definitely left an impression on critics like Film Journal International’s Shirley Sealy, who called it “A quietly told film that–by casually tossing in a surprise here and a plot twist there–builds up to an ending that carries an intense emotional impact.”


3. Mrs. Brown

Butler made his film debut with a relatively minor role in John Madden’s Mrs. Brown, playing the younger brother of a Scottish servant (Billy Connolly) whose relationship with the widowed Queen Victoria (Judi Dench) throws the royal court into a tizzy. Originally intended to air as an episode of Masterpiece Theatre, it went on to accrue acclaim — and a healthy $13 million at the box office during its arthouse run — while bringing Dench her first Best Actress Academy Award nomination. Observed Janet Maslin of the New York Times, “Mrs. Brown’ transcends its period setting not only with a keenly observed struggle between love and duty but also with the kind of controversy that envelops the Queen and her servant.”


2. Coriolanus

This critically lauded, Ralph Fiennes-directed period piece is an adaptation of the Shakespeare play that follows the adventures of the titular Roman general (Fiennes) who’s manipulated by his domineering mother (Vanessa Redgrave) into angling for higher office — and then finds himself exiled from the city. Who does he turn to when it comes time to hatch a plan for his return? Why, his burly archenemy Tullus Aufidius — who’s played to seething, bearded perfection by Butler, coming full circle by reprising the role for the cameras after scoring one of his earliest career breaks in a stage production of the play. Offering resounding proof that all Butler really needs is to step away from the regrettable rom-coms and pick a few solid scripts, Coriolanus earned the praise of critics like Slant’s Chuck Bowen, who called it “a savage action movie that somehow manages to preserve the heart of the Bard’s work while reducing his words to devastating shards.”


1. How to Train Your Dragon

If you’re casting the voice of the head of an ancient Viking village — and you don’t happen to have an actual ancient Viking lying around — you could do a heck of a lot worse than Gerard Butler, who stepped in to lend his beefy-sounding burr to the animated Stoick the Vast, patriarch of the dragon-infested island of Berk, in DreamWorks’ massive 2010 hit How to Train Your Dragon. Though the movie’s impressive 3D CGI visuals were undeniably the star of the show, Butler was part of a sharp voice cast that included Craig Ferguson, Jay Baruchel, America Ferrera, Jonah Hill, and Christopher Mintz-Plasse — and part of the reason the Houston Chronicle’s Amy Biancolli said the movie “uses its whiz-bang technology to amplify feelings as well as dimension and scale. The big optical wow is only the half of it.”

In case you were wondering, here are Butler’s top 10 movies according RT users’ scores:

1. 300 — 90%
2. How to Train Your Dragon — 90%
3. Dear Frankie — 89%
4. The Phantom of the Opera — 86%
5. P.S. I Love You — 82%
6. Law Abiding Citizen — 77%
7. Chasing Mavericks — 76%
8. Mrs. Brown — 75%
9. Harrison’s Flowers — 74%
10. RocknRolla — 71%

Take a look through Butler’s complete filmography, as well as the rest of our Total Recall archives. And don’t forget to check out the reviews for Playing for Keeps.

Finally, here’s a younger Butler in a reasonably intense UK Polaroid commercial:

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