The action-flick Everyman limps nobly on in “Kandahar.”
Midway through Gerard Butler’s new movie, “Kandahar,” is maybe the coolest sequence I have ever seen in a Gerard Butler movie. It’s the middle of the night in the middle of a desert, and Butler’s C.I.A.-operative character is racing with his Afghan translator to a distant extraction point. Because they are trying to avoid Pakistani, Iranian and Taliban bad guys who are pursuing them, their lights are off, and Butler’s character is wearing a pair of very stupid-looking infrared goggles. Suddenly there is a sound, one we only learn is a helicopter when those loopy goggles alight on it. The lengthy firefight that ensues is mostly just flashes in the darkness with occasional infrared — a beautiful tableau, like a Vija Celmins painting, that feels weird to enjoy only if you look too closely.
Butler’s movies are best when you don’t look too closely. This is already the second one gifted to us this year. I say “gifted” because it truly is a gift, in 2023, to receive such films — throwbacks not only to late-1980s action movies but to their stars, actors like Bruce Willis and Mel Gibson. In a market saturated by superheroes, Butler has been making nostalgic, midbudget action films so steadily, for so long, that he has perfected his own formula. A middle-aged Everyman (made of “bourbon and poor choices,” per his character in one series), often with military training, goes rogue against a system that is failing to protect his family or his translator or the president. These movies may be, like much of their genre, unseasonably macho, riddled with casual brutality and kind of misogynistic; they have also been accused of varying degrees of racism, jingoism and xenophobia. But their appeal is broader than you might think. Butler’s main concern is not necessarily ideological. He’s interested in nobility, loyalty, courage and strength — qualities that, in Hollywood, often manifest in martial form. And it’s through this faithful portrayal of a rumpled-but-honorable masculinity, in rotating all-American settings, that a Scottish dude has become a kind of heartland hero.
His breakthrough was “300,” Zack Snyder’s live-action adaptation of Frank Miller’s own graphic retelling of the 480 B.C. Battle of Thermopylae, in which a meager Greek army fought to the death against a Persian onslaught. This 2006 movie birthed not only the archetypal Butler action hero, his Spartan King Leonidas, but also the type of film that would contain him. “300” had the velveteen look of a Caravaggio, but all the depth of a soup can. It leaned into religious and mythic iconography — Leonidas succumbs, at the end, surrounded by his soldiers, riddled with arrows like some mash-up of St. Sebastian and the Sistine Chapel’s “The Last Judgment.” Butler, in baby bangs and sprayed-on abs and a brogue reminiscent of Tony Curtis in “Spartacus,” sold the display like a pro. No matter how savage he got, there was always some puckish humanity flickering across his face — like the scene in “Point Break” in which Keanu Reeves catches a glimpse of Patrick Swayze’s gentle eyes behind his mask and doesn’t shoot.
Images and themes from “300” recur across Butler’s films. There’s loyalty to the homeland and its defenders, the passing of “respect and honor” from father to son, soft homophobia toward “philosophers and boy-lovers” by half-naked alpha males, stoicism, nurturing women, “no mercy” conflicts with foreigners, heroic sacrifice, David-and-Goliath battles. “I’m just a law-abiding citizen — I’m just a regular guy,” Butler says in “Law-Abiding Citizen,” which came out three years after “300.” In that one, an engineer named Clyde Shelton sees his wife and daughter killed in front of him, but the biggest wound comes from the justice system, via a prosecutor played by Jamie Foxx. Clyde responds with a bit of a killing spree, pledging to bring the whole “diseased corrupt temple” down on the lawyer’s head — “It’s gonna be biblical.”
It’s the trilogy of “Olympus Has Fallen,” “London Has Fallen” and “Angel Has Fallen,” with their combined box office of $522 million, that consolidated Butler’s brand as the kind of modest action star who has largely gone missing from theaters. In these movies, the Secret Service agent Mike Banning, growing increasingly broken down over time, protects the president from various disposable terrorists. He runs on steaks, and later on painkillers, and always ends up battered, emerging into the light propping up a commander in chief who says something like: “They came to desecrate our way of life. To foul our beliefs. Trample our freedom. And in this, not only did they fail, they granted us the greatest gift — a chance at our rebirth.”
If this sounds as if it springs from a conservative imagination, well, the franchise’s multicultural goons and deep-state conspiracies would certainly be familiar to that audience. But while Butler is the kind of guy who gets invited to the Pentagon to promote a thriller about Navy SEALs, his stance on these films is more rough and ready. Facing criticism for “London Has Fallen,” he argued at the premiere that “It’s about us winning” and “It’s based on heroism and the good guys kicking ass.” This generalized machismo maintains its appeal even when his films veer more mainstream — dropping the jingoism for “Angel Has Fallen” or, in 2017’s “Geostorm,” taking a cuckoo disaster-movie ride. In 2018’s “Den of Thieves,” where the masculinity is just dense enough to dilute the toxicity, he plays a leather-clad cop who swigs Pepto like whiskey and works to bring down some ex-Marines who aim to rob the Federal Reserve. In “Greenland,” he’s another engineer in another disaster, racing to get his family to a bunker (and refusing, in individualist American fashion, to help his neighbors). This January’s “Plane” was positively communist by comparison, with the tagline “survive together or die alone.” In that one, he’s a commercial pilot with an Air Force background whose jet crashes on a Filipino island held by separatists. There remain the obvious conservative themes — untrustworthy superiors, renegade saviors, barbaric foreigners — but it’s perfect all-audiences Butler, a propulsive popcorn flick with a righteous core.
Maybe it’s inevitable that the same guy who keeps revolting onscreen would do the same off it. Butler hasn’t appeared on a mainstream magazine cover since 2018. He seems to have smarted a little when, in a January interview, Inverse called him “the King of the B-movie” to his face. He knows he has a large audience, but I wonder if he knows quite how much good will he has accumulated. In “Kandahar,” he plays an undercover operative exposed by a leak “bigger than Snowden and WikiLeaks combined,” in a script packed with “free world” jokes and aphorisms like “you have to return home to know what you are fighting for.” But I genuinely felt chills at the ending, a lachrymose montage in which the blue-eyed soul of Tom Rhodes’s “Low Tide” plays over shots of Butler and his translator, finally safe, intercut with sentimental scenes of their loved ones. It’s cheap, but there’s a good heart in there, and that’s hard to come by these days.