With his role as King Leonidas in 300, Gerard Butler cemented his place as a household name and a staple of action movies with him making many other notable contributions to the genre in the years since.
Updated on July 25th, 2021 by Mark Birrell: Gerard Butler has had success in romantic comedies and mysterious thrillers, but the actor is still best recognized for his action roles. Even in the animated How to Train Your Dragon franchise, his booming voice adds an extra shot of adrenaline to the fantasy adventure stories. What are Butler’s best all-out action movies though? From disaster epics to crime capers, the actor’s action movies have a little bit of something for everyone.
10 Greenland (2020)
● Available on HBO Max
A more low-key–yet still highly explosive–disaster movie compared to a critical and commercial misfire like Geostorm, Greenland stars Butler as a husband and father trying to save his family from the impending apocalypse of a planet-killing comet collision.
Butler’s lead is nothing special compared to his normally unstoppable action heroes but that adds something to the movie’s emphasis on drama and tension, with the family fighting impossible odds to somehow make it through the hellish situation alive and the crisis bringing out both the best and worst in humanity.
9 Hunter Killer (2018)
● Available on Peacock
Gerard Butler leads this large-scale military action movie as a submarine commander involved in the rescue of the Russian president during a coup attempt, with supporting work from the likes of Gary Oldman and Michael Nyqvist adding some extra pedigree to the proceedings.
With Butler taking charge beneath the waves, a Navy SEAL team on the ground, and the top brass dealing with the confusing intelligence, the action has lots of variation with plenty of sizzle keeping the intrigue high, even if the movie is a bit of a willfully predictable throwback.
8 Olympus Has Fallen (2013)
● Available on Netflix
Just one of two Die–Hard-inspired movies set in the White House released in 2013, Olympus Has Fallen boasts an all-star cast, and like any disaster movie, that adds to the silly fun. Director Antoine Fuqua brings an old-fashioned enthusiasm to the action as the White House is taken over by terrorists and Butler’s last remaining action hero, Mike Banning, fights to save the president.
With an excess of blood and brash language, the movie captures John McClane’s signature attitude and technically beat Roland Emmerich’s White House Down at the box office, thanks to its lower budget, spawning a bonafide action franchise despite its lack of originality.
7 Reign Of Fire (2002)
● Available on Prime Video and Cinemax
Reign of Fire takes place in a near-future UK that’s the epicenter of a breakout of firebreathing dragons that have ravaged the world. Butler takes a supporting role alongside Christian Bale’s lead here but it’s Matthew McConaughey who really steals the show as an Ahab-like dragon hunter.
Something of a cult classic, this dragon-pocalypse tale is a charming surprise, perhaps if only for taking itself so very seriously, which strangely works in its favor. With such a high-concept premise most films would lean into the ridiculousness. By doing exactly the opposite, Reign of Fire actually spins a catchy adventure out of familiar themes and tropes.
6 Angel Has Fallen (2019)
● Available on Netflix
In a decisive move, the “Fallen” franchise smartly reversed course from the escalating large-scale action in its third installment. Instead, Angel Has Fallen aims for a more intimate story by addressing Banning’s age and exploring his familial problems. Banning’s past catches up with him, he requires medication, and he ultimately reconvenes with his father.
Not without its own set of action genre tropes, the film still hits these beats with gusto. An elaborate assassination attempt on the president using a swarm of exploding drones is a definite highlight. However, the biggest standout of the film is undoubtedly Nick Nolte as Banning’s father. The veteran actor flaunts his talent and has a very natural chemistry with Butler.
5 Machine Gun Preacher (2011)
● Available on HBO Max
The violence in this movie is unexpectedly graphic, although it feels more stylish when depicting the biker-gang lifestyle. Still, the action tropes are mostly cast aside after Butler’s protagonist changes course early on, turning from a life of crime to a calling as a preacher fighting with the Sudan People’s Liberation Army.
Based on the true story of Sam Childers, the story explores how the most violent and tragic lives can genuinely recover and do good. Consequently, Butler is wholly unlikeable to begin with but the protagonist’s redemption is fascinating and sincere. The conflict it depicts is also shocking and demands attention.
4 Den Of Thieves (2018)
● Available to rent on Apple TV
This epic crime drama is, in a lot of ways, a remake of Heat, a classic duel in the city between cops and robbers. Butler’s top cop has marital issues, while the bank robbers have sympathetic relationships and intense friendships. However, the law enforcement depicted here is far more ethically murky, being unusually ruthless.
The film is definitely rooting for the bank robbers, who many viewers get their thrills from anyway. Still, Butler’s character is also distinctly clever. Overall, the game of cat and mouse isn’t nearly as interesting as the film’s blatant influences. However, it delivers enough compelling chases and drama to appease fans of the genre.
3 Law Abiding Citizen (2009)
● Available on AMC+
This nifty thriller also acts as an interesting deconstruction of certain hypocrisies in the legal system. Butler plays a man whose wife and daughter are murdered in a home invasion, with the killer going free due to a deal. His more villainous character is elevated beyond a simple revenge story because his loss was also rooted in legal flaws. This is more engaging than the familiar issues of vigilante justice that so much on-screen vengeance prioritizes.
The series of kills is definitely gripping as Butler’s character is an engineer and former black-ops assassination planner, so his methods of revenge always involve some creative and gruesome flourishes as well as a philosophically intellectual side, almost making him like the thought-provoking horror killer Jigsaw from the Saw movies.
2 RocknRolla (2008)
● Available on Tubi
Aside from a memorable action scene involving a messy robbery, RocknRolla plays fast and loose at sticking to one specific genre. But there are certainly plenty of thrills throughout the movie and it’s an interesting variation in Butler’s typically more straightforward action roles. Director Guy Ritchie hits all of the familiar, lovable beats that built his career with an all-star ensemble cast playing a group of likable criminals that are linked through highly unusual circumstances.
The dark comedy works and the plot is surprisingly straightforward, as Ritchie’s stories refuse to hold the audience’s hand for the most part. Ultimately, this is a very quirky film that should please longtime fans of Butler’s movie career and maintains a tremendous sense of fun throughout for fans of crime movies in general.
1 300 (2006)
● Available for purchase on Prime Video
It could be nigh on impossible for Gerard Butler to surpass the success of King Leonidas in pop culture. Director Zack Snyder brought Frank Miller’s powerful graphic novel to life with careful fidelity. And Miller’s imagery translated unexpectedly well on screen, with exhilarating battle sequences and a particularly magnetic cast. Furthermore, the film owns its true nature, and the premise is innately entertaining.
Thermopylae is one of the most famous conflicts in military history, due to its central strategy and the defending Greeks were the ultimate underdog, vastly outnumbered and motivated by freedom. The film even adds melodramatic corruption to every bureaucratic force in Sparta. This is a definitive story of heroism, featuring an impossible machismo culture that vicariously empowers many viewers. With small elements of fantasy, this is also a must-see for fans of Greek mythology movies.
NEXT: Gerard Butler’s 5 Most Impressive Roles (& 5 Forgettable Ones)
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