Tracking Gerard Butler: A look at the Scottish actor's film career

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Either Gerard Butler has an uneven taste in movies or he's just better than most of the material lobbed his way. However, the 43-year-old Scottish actor is that rare leading man (other than Brad Pitt) to star alongside Angelina Jolie and, years later, Jennifer Aniston.

Today, he appears in the only movie opening nationwide, "Playing for Keeps," a romcom in which he is a down-on-his-luck former soccer star who moves to Alexandria, Va., to put his life back together. He gets roped into coaching his son's soccer team, which means deflecting soccer moms as if he were a goalie, and spending time with his ex-wife again.

He stars alongside Jessica Biel, Uma Thurman, Catherine Zeta-Jones and Dennis Quaid. If the new film leaves you wanting more, here are some suggestions for other movies starring Mr. Butler along with how we rated them upon release.

1. "Machine Gun Preacher," 2011 (2.5 out of 4 stars)-- Mr. Butler perfectly embodies the hard-living biker from Somerset County who channels his intensity into building and preaching at his own church and pouring his time, money and attention into saving African children from being turned into soldiers and killers.

Even with the true-life story of Sam Childers, a reminder that charity can blossom in the most unlikely places and a soulful closing song by Chris Cornell, the movie never quite worked or found an audience.

Why watch: The movie is inspiring and, as the outlaw turned do-gooder said of the actor, "In many of the scenes, you can see in his eyes that he got it. He truly felt the passion, the reasoning."

2. "How to Train Your Dragon," 2010 (3.5 stars) -- The Scotsman speaks for Stoick the Vast, chief of his Viking tribe and a burly bloke with horned helmet, bushy red beard and furry vest. He is one manly man in this animated adventure.

The same cannot be said for his teenage son (voice of Jay Baruchel), brainy, not brawny, and the least likely dragon slayer on the Isle of Berk where the residents have been bedeviled by the predators for seven generations.

Why watch: It was one of three Oscar nominees for best animated film, losing to "Toy Story 3," and it's exceedingly well done.

3. "The Bounty Hunter," 2010 (1.5 stars) -- Jennifer Aniston is a New York reporter and Mr. Butler her ex-husband, a bounty hunter trying to bring her to jail after she misses a court date for a traffic mishap to chase a tip about a suspected murder. The couple end up running from killers, bookies and thugs, stopping only long enough to take turns handcuffing each other to bedposts and barely ruminating on their short-lived marriage in this action comedy.

Why watch: Two photogenic leads and it doesn't hurt that Mr. Butler appears bare-chested after a shower.

4. "Law Abiding Citizen," 2009 (1.5 stars) -- Despite two fine and fine-looking actors as the leads -- Mr. Butler and Jamie Foxx -- the story demands the audience swallow a lot of nonsense about how the criminal justice and Philadelphia prison systems work.

Mr. Butler is a man whose wife and young daughter are killed during a home invasion; a decade later, he strikes like a coiled rattler, going after the men who slaughtered his family and then the people charged with upholding the law. Once he is behind bars, though, no one can figure out how he's executing his plans but the stakes and body count keep rising.

Why watch: To see if you can outsmart the mastermind and figure out how he's executing his revenge.

5. "The Ugly Truth," 2009 (2 stars) -- Katherine Heigl is the producer of a breezy and ratings-challenged TV show called "A.M. Sacramento" and Mr. Butler is a cable TV regular who knows the way to a man's, uh, heart: Get skinny and buy trashy lingerie, for starters. Could this so-called expert be the answer to her show's rating woes?

Ms. Heigl seems game for anything and Mr. Butler's masculine charm meter is cranked up to high. The story works best when he is schooling her in the secrets of seduction, misfires in its portrait of morning TV, and turns silly and conventional by the end.

Why watch: The leads have more chemistry than Ms. Heigl and some of her other leading men or Mr. Butler and Hilary Swank (see below).

6. "RocknRolla," 2008 (3 stars) -- Writer-director Guy Ritchie plops moviegoers into a slice of London where big-time mobsters, small-time hustlers, wannabes, crooks, junkies, lawyers on the take, accountants massaging the books, thieves and a newcomer -- a Russian billionaire -- cross and double-cross paths.

It rides a dynamic mix of punk, garage and indie rock music as it builds to Mr. Ritchie's version of an Agatha Christie mystery with a goodly number of the characters gathered in one spot that definitely doesn't resemble a stuffy drawing room.

Why watch: As a small-time crook nicknamed One Two, Mr. Butler is part of an ensemble that includes Tom Wilkinson, Tom Hardy, Karel Roden, Mark Strong, Thandie Newton, Idris Elba, Chris "Ludacris" Bridges, Jeremy Piven and Toby Kebbell.

7. "Nim's Island," 2008 (3 stars) -- Abigail Breslin is an 11-year-old girl who lives alone on a remote island with her scientist father (Mr. Butler). When he goes missing on an expedition, she has to defend the island from cruise-ship passengers and reach out to the writer of her favorite adventure novels who is a borderline agoraphobic portrayed by Jodie Foster.

Based on a book by Wendy Orr, "Nim's Island" is the rare adventure film that stars a girl. And she's a girl who may occasionally cry but who is resourceful and fearless and even a bit foolhardy.

Why watch: Although its PG rating keeps the adventure on the mild side, it's solid, old-fashioned entertainment with an empowering message about being the hero of your own landlocked or seaworthy story.

8. "P.S. I Love You," 2007 (2 stars) -- In this adaptation of Cecelia Ahern's novel, Mr. Butler is the Irish-born Gerry, co-owner of a limousine service. He and his wife, Holly (Hilary Swank), live in New York, where he is ready to start a family, but she is not.

Her carefully calibrated plans turn to ashes when Gerry dies. Most of the film is spent following Holly's attempt to find a way back from despair -- through Gerry's advice, delivered from the grave in the form of letters ending, "P.S. I love you."

Why watch: Ms. Swank, a two-time Oscar winner, is horribly miscast and given cringe-worthy scenes, but Mr. Butler has never been more appealing than in the film's flashbacks.

9. "300," 2007 (2.5 stars) -- Mr. Butler told a reporter at the time, "I think I knew after meeting everybody and seeing the look of the film that if there was ever a film to put your whole heart and soul and physicality into, this was the one." He did, as a ripped King Leonidas in the epic based on Frank Miller's graphic novel.

It retells the story of the ancient battle of Thermopylae in which the king and 300 Spartans fought to the death against Xerxes and his massive Persian army.

Why watch: This is his signature role.

10. "The Phantom of the Opera," 2004 (3 stars) -- Michael Crawford fans may have been disappointed but the burgeoning pool of Butler fans were not. He plays the disfigured musical genius who haunts the Paris opera house in this sumptuous adaptation, while Emmy Rossum is chorus girl Christine Daae, the object of the Phantom's obsession.

The Glasgow-born actor excels in his dramatic scenes, while his singing voice sometimes has a rough edge to it in a movie with a mantra of more is more. As director Joel Schumacher told Minnie Driver, playing a diva, "Nobody ever paid to see under the top."

Why watch: The music, the magic, the man and his muse.

11. "Dear Frankie," 2004 (3 stars) -- This is a wee charmer of a movie. The boy of the title is a 9-year-old (Jack McElhone) who is deaf and frequently on the move with his secretive mom, Lizzie (Emily Mortimer), and her chain-smoking mother.

Frankie is a champion letter writer, penning missives to his absent father, supposedly on a ship traveling to exotic ports of call. Mr. Butler is a stranger hired to play the role of the dad in this movie that leads with its heart.

Why watch: You probably missed this in the theater and it never hurts to discover a sweet little film that briefly passed through town.

12. "Lara Croft Tomb Raider: The Cradle of Life," 2003 (2.5 stars) -- In this sequel to a movie based on a video game, Angelina Jolie reprises her role as the fearless, frightfully fit Englishwoman who keeps stumbling across ancient treasures that evildoers covet, so they can control time or the world. Mr. Butler is her former lover, imprisoned in Kazakhstan. They must join forces, however, to stop a Nobel Prize-winning scientist who could unleash a deadly plague.

Why watch: The stunts and action scenes are the strength of the movie and you get to see Ms. Jolie attract a shark by slicing her own arm, punching the toothy one in the snout and grabbing its fin for a thrill-ride escape.

13. "Reign of Fire," 2002 (2 stars) -- Christian Bale plays a man who presides over a ragtag community of survivors who escaped from flying, fire-breathing, ferocious dragons unleashed from London's underground. Mr. Butler is his sarcastic pal and Matthew McConaughey a hot-headed American who sports majestic muscles, tattoos, shaved head and a crazy glint in his eyes.

Why watch: Now, you could think of this movie as Batman meets King Leonidas and Magic Mike's boss.

Bonus pick: "Chasing Mavericks," starring Mr. Butler as the guru to a young Jay Moriarity, who would become a real-life legendary surfer while still a teen. It's gone from theaters but has yet to land a DVD date.


Movie editor Barbara Vancheri: or 412-263-1632. Read her blog: First Published December 7, 2012 5:00 AM


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