Last week as I fought traffic en route to a London Has Fallen screening, I tweeted from the back of a cab, “Out of my way people! I’m running late for a Gerard Butler movie!” It was a silly little joke, a comment to kill time as we idled in the morning rush hour.
The first response came in right away: “said no one, ever,” followed by a torrent of unexpected Butler hate.
One person called him a “bouncer actor,” whatever that means.
Another questioned his ability to effectively disguise his native Scottish accent and many people offered me their condolences.
Why the Butler bashing?
It’s true he is a frustrating movie star. He shares the usual leading man traits that have made Brad Pitt and Leonardo DiCaprio superstars.
He’s handsome, talented and built like an action star but he’s been done in time after time by poor choices.
Pitt makes Fight Club, Butler makes Law Abiding Citizen. Leo stars in The Departed, Gerard does Machine Gun Preacher. Years ago the website Gawker placed Butler on movie star probation, calling him a “professional bad decision maker” alongside notable career fritterers Cuba Gooding Jr. and John Travolta. A look at his IMDB page suggests they were on to something.
He’s a utility player, comfortable switching genres the way most of us change our socks. One minute he’s a romantic comedy star, the next he’s choking out bad guys on screen. He’s flirted with Shakespeare and provided voices for cartoons. He’s done sci-fi flicks, musicals and even a rendering of the Anglo-Saxon epic poem Beowulf.
It’s not like he hasn’t enjoyed some very big hits. In 300 he (and his meticulously crafted six-pack) played King Leonidas, a Spartan who led 300 soldiers against the might of the Persian army. It’s the film equivalent of a heavy metal concert — loud, brutal and completely uncompromising — and it made him an action hero.
People have a soft spot for Dear Frankie, his breakout film and the one that turned him into a heartthrob with serious dramatic chops. The four-hankie U.K. tear-jerker about a single mother who resorts to trickery to keep the memory of her late husband alive in her son’s mind put Butler on the world stage.
Other box office bonanzas include playing a charming mobster in the violent Guy Ritchie flick RocknRolla and voicing Viking Stoick the Vast in How to Train Your Dragon.
It’s the other stuff that seems to rub people the wrong way. As a movie reviewer I can attest there are few English language words more terrifying than “New Gerard Butler Romantic Comedy” and I think it is those films that turned my Twitter followers against him.
He’s a good actor but his track record in the rom-com department is particularly grim. Critics hate these movies, calling the handsome Scottish actor’s attempts at mixing love and comedy, “instantly grating,” and “embarrassingly limited.”
But I come to praise Butler, not to bury him. Let’s give him another chance.
I made it to the London Has Fallen screening and can tell you it’s a pretty good action movie. Perhaps even good enough to erase the memory of The Ugly Truth or Playing for Keeps from our collective memories.
Director F. Gary Gray doesn’t waste any precious time getting to “Law Abiding Citizen’s” action. About thirty seconds into the movie there is a scene of striking ultra-violence that sets up the revenge story which is to follow. It’s just too bad that he allows the pace to go downhill after the opening scene. It’s a thriller without many thrills.
Gerard Butler and his finely carved abdominal muscles play Clyde Shelton the law abiding citizen referred to in the title. His life is changed forever after a home invasion leaves his wife and small child dead. When Assistant DA Nick Rice (Jamie Foxx), a slick up-and-coming lawyer at the DA’s office, makes a deal with one of the killers to testify against his partner in return for a reduced sentence it doesn’t sit well with Clyde. Cut to ten years later. Bad things start happening to everyone involved in the case, starting with the bad guys who both perish in excruciating ways. Clyde is arrested and confesses. That should be the end of it, but very bad things continue to happen. By the time Nick figures out how Clyde is doling out his own form of cruel and unusual punishment from jail it may be too late to save his own life.
There are a lot of words that could be used to describe “Law Abiding Citizen.” Here are some of them: goofy, implausible, ludicrous, inane, far-fetched, daft, nonsensical, illogical, preposterous, outlandish… I could go on, but you get the point. The story is a little silly, but that’s OK. It’s a revenge flick and if it was loaded with wall-to-wall action and some fun dialogue I could deal with the silliness. Look at “Taken” from earlier this year. Silly, silly, silly but fun in a check your brain at the door kind of way.
Unfortunately “Law Abiding Citizen” doesn’t have that kind of verve. There’s too much lag time between the big action set pieces. Every time the movie works up a head of steam the momentum evaporates into talky and mostly badly written dialogue sequences.
A red pencil could have made this script much more palatable but it’s likely that if you removed every line where a characters states the obvious and mundane there’s be very little left, dialogue wise. It’s the kind of movie that shows you a bomb with a cell phone trigger. Comments on it and then, for good measure, has another character say something like, “Do you mean to tell me that if that cell phone rings the bomb will go off?” Anyone who’s ever watched “Mission Impossible” or any other thriller involving bad guys and bombs knows that yes, if the cell phone rings the bomb will go off. It’s movie watching 101. You know it just like you know that the guy in the red shirt will always be the first to die on any given episode of “Star Trek.”
When the characters aren’t speaking in clichés they’re trying to comment on the state of a broken justice system that could let a child killer off with a light sentence. It’s an interesting premise for a revenge film, but again, Wimmer overplays his hand, putting sentences like, “I’m going to bring the whole diseased, corrupt temple down on your head! It’s going to be biblical” into Butler’s mouth.
Too bad the action isn’t as over-the-top as the dialogue. If so “Law Abiding Citizen” might have had a chance to be a great bad movie, as it is, it’s just a bad movie.