Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 16 June 2019

'The Vanishing': Gerard Butler’s return to the big screen is a long way from Sparta

The Scottish actor was tipped as Hollywood’s next big thing after his ‘300’ breakout. This weekend, he opens in a low-budget British indie

Gerard Butler in 'The Vanishing'. Courtesy Graeme Hunter Pictures
Gerard Butler in 'The Vanishing'. Courtesy Graeme Hunter Pictures

Gerard Butler returns to screens this weekend in the tense psychological thriller The Vanishing. It has been something of a roller-coaster ride of a career for the Scottish actor since he first leapt into the public consciousness with his portrayal of King Leonidas in Zack Snyder’s box office smash 300 in 2007.

Following that film’s success, the world seemed to be Butler’s oyster.

With a half-a-billion-dollar hit behind him, spring box office records smashed, multiple awards for his performance, and his 300 workout” the essential health fad of the day, ­Butler was the toast of Hollywood and ­appeared set to join the ranks of action hero royalty.

It didn’t quite work out like that, however, which brings us to The Vanishing. In and of itself, it is a perfectly decent movie. It takes a little while to get going, and Kristoffer Nyholm’s efforts to convey a sense of brooding isolation on a remote Scottish island can seem to convey more of a sense of waiting for something to happen in the film’s opening act. Once things do happen, however, it is a tense ­psychodrama in the vein of Shallow Grave.

Three lighthouse-keepers live together in an isolated Scottish lighthouse, but when a mysterious body washes up alongside a chest full of apparently unclaimed gold, our heroes’ sanity is tested to the limit by the events that unfold. Butler shows he has more acting ability than we may usually give him credit for as keeper James, but is a $5 million (Dh18.4m) budget Scottish indie really where we expected to find ­“Hollywood’s next big thing” 12 years after his ­record-breaking breakthrough?

Butler may have partly been the instrument of his own ­demise here. Having ­established himself as a ­muscle-bound action hero – the 300 workout” was one of the most Googled phrases of 2007 – the actor seemingly ­decided on a change of direction, taking on a series of romantic lead roles in critically panned rom-coms over the next few years. PS I Love You (2007), The Ugly Truth (2009) and The Bounty Hunter (2010) were all roundly slammed, with many critics questioning Butler’s casting and suggesting that he stick to the action.

Butler’s lack of range is no secret, perhaps in part due to his lack of training. The actor came to the profession late, aged 27, having previously trained as a lawyer. There is no doubt that it is possible to be a naturally talented actor, but training helps, too, especially for those roles with accents or nuances that do not come easily to you.

Butler plays a lighthouse-keeper in the indie film. Courtesy Graeme Hunter Pictures
Butler plays a lighthouse-keeper in the indie film. Courtesy Graeme Hunter Pictures

Some of his recent self-­produced films, such as A ­Family Man, seem to have been a (not entirely successful) vanity project effort to disprove the “lack of range” theory. In fairness, in The ­Vanishing he displays a reasonable range of emotions, albeit while playing a burly Scotsman and engaging in a few fight scenes. A scan through his award wins, however, reveals a healthy haul, but of populist awards such as MTV and Teen Choice prizes, alongside a couple of Golden Raspberries. Butler is not an “Oscars actor” and definitely not a romantic lead.

A further perennial problem for Butler is that he simply does not pick very good films, or perhaps he simply does not get offered very good films. Even when he sticks to action roles, they are ­rarely in well-received movies.

Aside from 300, of the 42 films Butler stars in that are currently rated on ­Rotten ­Tomatoes, just eight are certified “fresh”. His ­big-budget attempt to recapture 300’s historical epic action success Gods of Egypt, and the equally heavily budgeted bomb ­Geostorm are among the lows, with a 13 and 15 per cent rating respectively. Of the eight fresh films, three are How to Train Your Dragon and its sequels – hardly what you would call Butler vehicles, as he merely provides the voice for an animated dragon.

And it is not just the critics who think so. Since the success of 300, only two of Butler’s films have taken more than $100m at the box in the United States, and once again, they are the animated How to Train Your Dragon and its sequel (the third film will doubtless add to this tally with its release in the US next week.) These are films in which Butler’s input is secondary.

Indeed, even the success of 300 could largely be attributed to Snyder’s stunning visual direction and the quality of Frank Miller’s source material, rather than Butler’s skills at bellowing while wearing sandals. Perhaps he is just not a box office draw?

However, The Vanishing bucks the trend of the Scotsman appearing in poor films, and appropriately, it is his second-highest rated film on Rotten Tomatoes since 2011’s ­Coriolanus, with 87 per cent. It has also already taken in more than triple its, admittedly low, budget at the box office on a limited release in the US, with the United Kingdom and other markets yet to release.

The only other non-­animated, non-300, Butler movies to achieve positive ratings from Rotten Tomatoes’ field of critics are 1997’s royal drama Mrs Brown, with 92 per cent on the site, 2005 family drama Dear Frankie, with 81 per cent, and Guy Ritchie’s RocknRolla, which achieved a 60 per cent rating.

A pattern seems to be developing: when Butler appears in low-budget British indies, or as a voice artist in big-budget Hollywood animations, the film succeeds, both ­critically and commercially. When he appears in Hollywood live-action movies, he had better make sure that Snyder is directing.

The Vanishing is in UAE cinemas this weekend

Updated: February 14, 2019 06:48 PM

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