It's been hard to find a prominent, talented actor who's had as streaky a filmography as Gerard Butler-- "streaky" meaning a mostly bad streak. The Scottish star has had an odd career after a hot start. Can he take comfort in the paths of other actors, or, after reviewing his career to date, does he even deserve to be mentioned in the same breath?
Many good actors got off to similarly hot career starts only to hit the skids with a series of duds and/or poor decisions: John Travolta's had at least one if not two career comebacks after hitting the skids; Ben Affleck (Surviving Christmas, Gigli, Hollywoodland, Chasing Lanes, Daredevil). Sean Connery, Ray Liotta and Renee Zelwegger also come to mind.
Cuba Gooding Jr. might be the best parallel for Butler, though with an even spottier career. After a good start, Gooding's mostly been stuck in weak nonsense despite his early prowess with the Oscar win for Best Supporting Actor for Jerry Maguire. The same could be said for Halle Berry, who, like Gooding, nabbed an impressive early career Oscar win that opened eyes more than doors. From Monster's Ball to the nadir of Catwoman, it's been an uphill climb for Berry who has at least been trying to get back on track with intelligent dramatic roles.
Back to Butler. He doesn't have that early award hardware but his career got off to a solid start after some small roles in TV and genre movies (including in the 007 flick Tomorrow Never Dies), he came to renown for starring in the glossy if kitschy film adaptation of the musical Phantom of the Opera, playing the titular lead alongside Emmy Rossum. The film started a precedent for Butler: it was a hit with audiences but garnered mixed responses from critics, although many singled out Butler's performance. Butler also appeared in the more unilaterally well-received British tearjerker Dear Frankie for which the actor received good notices playing opposite Emily Mortimer.
This was followed by a thundering success: Zack Snyder's visually striking adaptation of the Frank Miller graphic novel 300, which used superimposition chroma key technique. Butler starred as King Leonidas in this action-packed (rather fictionalized) retelling of the Battle of Thermopylae. 300 was a huge box office hit, grossing $450 million and developed a huge following.
It seemed the handsome, now-popular actor was well on his way to pick and choose his films. Instead, through a series of poor choices and/or perhaps not as many good opportunities as he might have expected, Butler again found himself in films that ended up doing far better with audiences than with critics, including the sappy P.S. I Love You, the horrid romantic "comedy" The Bounty Hunter, a multiple-Razzie nominee, and then mixed reviews for two very different films, as Abigail Breslin's dad in the kids' fantasy Nim's Island, and as a Scottish mobster in Guy Ritchie's uneven crime movie RocknRolla.
Butler bounced back a bit, though in voice only, in that rare (for him) box office and critical success in Dreamworks' animated hit How to Train Your Dragon, in which he played village chieftain Stoick the Vast, who's embarrassed by his dragon-lovin' son. He also joined an especially strong cast in a film that sadly made barely a blip at the box office, the Ralph Fiennes-directed Shakespeare adaptation Coriolanus. After earning a Golden Bear nomination at the Berlin International Film Fest, the film had a limited release in the U.S. and then was dumped on DVD. The hope was that its undeserved fate wouldn't send Butler scurrying back to less challenging fare.
But now with the blockbuster Olympus Has Fallen it seems Butler could very well repeat his pattern of box office success without the widespread critical acclaim many thought would be more routine at this point. It's become an interesting career to watch, more interesting than many give credit or realize, because it seems to be the case of a talented actor going where the money is (hard to argue with, frankly) rather than push himself into more interesting projects. He might do well to model himself after fellow Brits Clive Owen or Ewan McGregor, who've balanced high-profile studio fare at times with smaller art house films. Either way, this is a crossroads moment for Butler.