Gerard Butler is a sturdy actor. He’s never broken out as an action movie legend nor reinvented himself in the world of prestige cinema. However, in the 16 years since he established himself as a leading man with 300, he’s consistently anchored new movies and seems to be quite agreeable to most action cinema devotees. He just keeps rolling along, rarely dazzling viewers but also never repelling them, which is far more than one can say for many other action movie leading men. But if you want to experience Butler at his peak and see him in a whole new light, then there’s only one movie you need to watch. Den of Thieves may not feature Butler kicking people into pits bellowing about how “this is Sparta!” but it’s still home to what’s easily his greatest work as an actor.
Gerard Butler’s Journey to ‘Den of Thieves’
To understand what a refreshing revelation Butler’s Den of Thieves work is, we have to briefly touch on his…interesting journey as a leading man. 300 was Butler’s first major star vehicle, but he was technically inhabiting the lead roles of movies quite a few years before that in projects ranging from Dracula 2000 to The Phantom of the Opera. His imposing physique combined with that baritone Scottish voice made it understandable why major studios were seeking out Butler’s services for roles where he was supposed to exude a sense of immediate authority. Once 300 took off, Butler only became even more sought-after as an acting commodity.
Unfortunately, Hollywood didn’t really know what to do with Butler. One would imagine that movie theaters would’ve been swamped with other action movies starring Butler in the wake of him dishing out instantly iconic carnage in 300. While Gamer and Law Abiding Citizen in 2009 fit this bill nicely, Hollywood studios actually had other ambitions for Butler. He instead became a fixture of romantic comedies like The Ugly Truth and The Bounty Hunter while cornball dramas like Chasing Mavericks and Machine Gun Preacher were also notable star vehicles in this era of Butler’s career.
There were a lot of problems with this stage of Butler’s career, including that weird moment where Hollywood was convinced he’d become the next Matthew McConaughey but beefier, but the biggest issue was that they believed Butler could exist in the real world. There’s a reason Butler’s earliest roles were playing Dracula or fighting dragons in Reign of Fire. He immediately exudes a larger-than-life quality that’s impossible to shake. It’s why he fit in so well in the highly stylized world of 300, but also why it was impossible to buy him as a single dad/soccer coach in Playing for Keeps. Butler cannot exist in “the real world”, and as late as 2017, movies like Geostorm refused to accept this. That disaster movie tried to make Butler play an everyday divorced dad who eventually helps save the world, an archetype of the genre that’s been successfully inhabited by other actors…but not Butler. That’s not where his strengths lie.
Then comes Den of Thieves. Here is a movie where Butler can be turned loose.
Gerard Butler Is Joyfully Maximalist in ‘Den of Thieves’
Gerard Butler’s Den of Thieves character, Detective Nick “Big Nick” O’Brien, enters the movie investigating a crime scene. Well, investigating may be too charitable of a word. O’Brien is mostly around to banter around with other officers at the scene. Dressed like he just rolled out of bed and letting words like “pop!” roll off his tongue with quiet intensity, Butler immediately conveys an energy and distinctiveness in his performance that’s been missing from so many of his other post-300 roles. As he concludes his introductory scene by giving off a cartoony little wave farewell that’s unlike any other goodbye wave in history, one can get cozy in their seat and let a grin emerge on their face. Butler is home now. Butler is finally in a movie that’s going to let him be an oversized caricature.
From here, “Big Nick” is the most pronounced part of Den of Thieves and easily its most unforgettable element, one that’s also seeped deep in cinema’s past. Butler is undoubtedly taking cues from other actors known for heightened physicality, namely Al Pacino and Nicolas Cage, in informing the unique dialogue delivers and peculiar hand gestures in this character. Butler, of course, never matches the best insane performances from those two vintage actors, but channeling Pacino and Cage turns out to be a way better look for him than you’d expect. It helps that screenwriter Christian Gudegast keeps coming up with very ridiculous scenarios for Butler that bring out the best in this actor.
Just look at a later scene in Den of Thieves where “Big Nick” crashes a fancy dinner his wife is attending. “Big Nick” arrives on the scene inebriated, but still carrying that physically menacing aura that Butler can command so nicely. Butler shows an impressive gift for balancing the ridiculous with some genuine tension here. He’s able to pat a nearby guy on the gut while also communicating a potent mixture of anger and sorrow towards a relationship that’s now turned to dust. His ex-lovers moved on, but he’s still drinking away, putting on a confident exterior to mask his interior shortcomings. The restrained nature of the sequence (no score here and the only music is a Marvin Gaye tune playing in the background) means all the focus is squarely on Butler’s performance. This choice proves to be a wise one since Butler, shockingly, entertains and communicates a lot about “Big Nick” in this stretch of Den of Thieves.
Look around in any part of Den of Thieves and Butler’s bound to be the highlight. He’s always injecting little weird asides or flourishes in his character’s line deliveries and body language that speak volumes to the chaotic internal world of this guy. Best of all, though, all those wacky elements don’t come at the cost of genuine tension. When Nick first kidnaps criminal Donnie (O’Shea Jackson Jr.) to recruit him as an informant to Nick and his team, Butler maintains those silly garnishes in his performance but there’s also an intensity to him that makes him unnervingly unpredictable. Everyone else in this room, including Donnie, is recognizably a human being, but Nick seems to have emerged from another dimension altogether.
His incongruity with everyone else in the cast makes him all the more slippery and difficult to pinpoint, a great way to insert tension into a feature. Other motion pictures have wanted Butler to fade into the background and function as just another generic leading man. Den of Thieves, though, allows him to be a lot more preposterous and idiosyncratic and he rises to the occasion.
Butler’s ‘Den of Thieves’ Performance Is Good Because of How Absurd It Gets
Butler’s willingness to go hammy for Den of Thieves, especially in his absurd line deliveries and inexplicable physical behavior, instantly makes his performance here so much more interesting than 90% of his other work as a leading man. Meanwhile, the innate moral ambiguity of the story (you’re never fully sure if you’re rooting for the robbers or the cops) is a great home for Butler’s intimidating physique, which can go from being impressive to terrifying in the blink of an eye. However you boil it down, Butler’s traits as an actor are perfectly served by “Big Nick,” a character who could’ve been just a bunch of forgettable eccentricities in the hands of another actor.
It’s even easier to appreciate what Butler does in Den of Thieves after watching his most recent action movie, Plane. Here, Butler plays an airplane pilot named Brodie Torrance, whose aircraft crashes down in dangerous territory. The plot sounds like decent fodder for a hammy action feature, but Butler’s never given much to do. Only an extended one-take action sequence affords him a real chance to engage in some memorable fighting while it’s difficult to describe Torrance on any level. He’s just another dutiful single dad caught in a larger-than-life scenario, the kind of role Liam Neeson or Charles Bronson would’ve done in a weekend.
Plane is a snooze on its own merits, but it’s especially apparent that this feature is a Goofus when you have Gerard Butler in Den of Thieves around to function as a Gallant. If only Plane and so many other Gerard Butler star vehicles had realized that this Scottish actor works so much better when you lean into him being ridiculous and not just a man who scowls or looks intense. What a shame motion pictures like Plane are such flagrant wastes of potential, but hey, at least Den of Thieves will always be around to show the world how Gerard Butler should be used.