Fantasy and football collide in Gerard Butler’s latest film. As film critic Tony Earnshaw discovered, a tale of wartime soccer could be the film that reinvents him.
THERE is a quote attributed to Gerard Butler that appears to sum up his nudge-nudge attitude to stardom and all it entails.
The story goes that the 43-year-old Scotsman returned home to Paisley for a festive family gathering. Ensconced in the bosom of mother and siblings he relaxed into a time before celebrity.
But when Mum asked him to do the washing up, Butler – with tongue in cheek – replied: “Mum, I am a major Hollywood movie star. I can’t be doing this – it’s embarrassing.”
Taken out of context such words would point to an outsize ego and the need for a reality check. In Butler’s case it merely adds to his charm and sense of self-mockery. He didn’t say if his mother slapped him in the chops with a dishcloth…
Butler is a fine film actor who never really gets the cream. His fans will doubtless argue that he’s done all right, thank you very much. He’s versatile enough to switch from comedy to action, from that trademark crinkly-eyed smile to pumped-up machismo, from Jennifer Aniston to Jessica Biel.
Yet there is the nagging sense that he is capable of more. Amidst the Hollywood conveyor belt produce that many of his contemporaries could play – Law Abiding Citizen, The Bounty Hunter, Machine Gun Preacher – come the films that hint at Butler’s hitherto largely latent skills. Movies like The Phantom of the Opera, 300, Coriolanus and Rocknrolla show what he’s capable of. Can he break the mould?
Which brings us to Playing for Keeps in which Butler is George Dyer, a former football star who returns home to an old life, an ex-wife and a maelstrom of problems, some of which are inherited but many are of his own creation.
His co-star in this one is Jessica Biel. She, like most of his leading ladies, seems to have an appreciation of the Glaswegian’s gruff charm, calling him “so fun, so cool”. Alongside Biel are Catherine Zeta-Jones and Uma Thurman as two foxy (and somewhat unlikely) soccer moms, along with Dennis Quaid as an older rival.
The film’s key relationship comes via George’s fractured links with his hero-worshipping son, Lewis, as played by Noah Lomax. Butler says: “I think the kids steal the movie. Noah’s character [has] got the anger but he’s just a good boy, and that’s what breaks your heart about this because he never did anything wrong.
“He’s a typical kid. He loves his mother [who] brought him up, but he idolises his father. ‘My Dad’s a soccer hero. Why doesn’t he turn up? Why is he not there?’ and then you got all of that out of this kid. He broke my heart when I was filming with him.”
Football films tend not to translate into box office gold. Richard Harris tried it with Bloomfield. Ian McShane was Yesterday’s Hero. Even Sean Bean donned the strip of his beloved Blades in When Saturday Comes. They all bombed.
And there is talk in the States that with Playing for Keeps Butler has made another turkey. Could his star be on the wane? Could the carrot of wearing a Celtic shirt have been a factor in him accepting the job…?
“I was amazed actually how much I got caught up in it,” he laughs.
“Watching the movie thinking ‘Oh, that was me. I played for Celtic, I played for Liverpool’, even though that really just involved a day in the studio, shooting some football moves and then slotting them into an actual game.
“But wearing the top and filming that, it was easy to make that leap and go ‘Yeah…’ In fact, I played a charity game for Celtic against Manchester United, so that was really a dream come true. I felt like that was the universe answering that intention that I put out.”
He adds: “We chose [the film’s football moves] from a lot of suitable set pieces from actual games, and then I maybe performed six or seven different moves.
“From there we said ‘Okay, which are the ones that look best?’ but I wanted the overhead kick and the header.”
The success or failure of Playing for Keeps may determine whether he opts to do another football flick. But Dynamo, a possible future movie, based on the book by the Scots journalist Andy Dougan, is a far cry from the saccharine self-indulgence of wearing your favourite club’s shirt. Butler describes it as “more of a Schindler’s List of football movies than a Playing for Keeps”, and he’s right. The true-life tale of the wartime players of Dynamo Kiev who played a “Match of Death” against a well-fed Wehrmacht side in 1942, it is a remarkable story made all the more so by being utterly genuine.
“It is in the pipeline,” says a cautious Butler, “we don’t even have a script yet.
“It’s definitely a dark harrowing tale but, yeah, I would love [to do it] and hope that we get to make it because it’s such a powerful story. When it was pitched to me I was crying listening to it.
“I said to my buddy who was producing it ‘You should actually just film you telling that story and put it on in a cinema.
“You don’t need me. You don’t need anything else, just the way you said that, I would pay to go and see that movie’.”
Butler’s filmography has three new titles on it. Dynamo currently sits with a question mark against it. Holocaust movies are never an easy sell – and the story of the Dynamo players did not have a happy ending – but if it takes a soccer-mad movie star to get it made, then Gerard Butler could be that man.
And it may yet provide him with the in-depth performance he needs to prove to his detractors just how good he can be with the right role.