Since 2017, Midwest Film Journal has prided itself on delivering thoughtful commentary on current and classic cinema. No one piece has persisted as powerfully as our 2018 review of Den of Thieves, which we called an “unswervingly painful” waste of 140 minutes.
SEO tells us the piece’s popularity is thanks to its reference of one character’s inscrutable “Peckerwood” tattoo. Instinct tells us otherwise.
People really love Gerard Butler.
Disfigured catacomb vocalist. Ripped Spartan warrior. Machine gun preacher. Secretly sweet lothario. Donut-housing cop. Dragon-slaying hero. HMS Devonshire crewman. Angry little leprechaun. Stalwart hunter killer. Geostorm-stopping scientist. Vengeful Egyptian god.
It’s but a small sampling of this Scottish export’s quarter-century run — whose body of work we’ll highlight biweekly in a monthlong retrospective.
We bring you … The Butler Did It.
Unless you were a Dame Judi Dench enthusiast or detail-oriented James Bond archivist for GeoCities, there was no reason anyone would recognize Gerard Butler in the year 2000. That’s OK. Butler didn’t yet fully know himself, either, having torpedoed a law career and pivoted into theatrical productions of Coriolanus and Trainspotting before moving to L.A. in 1999.
It was there that Patrick Lussier, longtime editor for horror maven Wes Craven and the architect of visual storytelling in D3: The Mighty Ducks, plucked Butler from obscurity and placed him on a path to stardom. Lussier cast him in the title role of Wes Craven Presents: Dracula 2000 — Dracula, that is. Not Wes Craven, although Butler certainly would’ve been game for either part.
Dracula 2000 is a milquetoast Matrix-y vampire movie cobbled together by respective writers (credited or otherwise) of Highlander: Endgame, Urban Legends: Final Cut and Reindeer Games. It’s populated with players like Omar Epps, Jennifer Esposito, Vitamin C and Jeri Ryan who had either passed away in, or more likely had been passed over for, one of Craven’s Scream films. Most of their characters sport clearance-rack trench-coats and / or wire-rimmed glasses. Some work in a Virgin Megastore; for those audiences who only recognize Butler from Geostorm, Virgin Megastores were a nationwide chain in which VHS tapes and compact discs once were sold. Some of these characters become vampires — killed by violent decapitation that sends their heads into a Virgin Megastore dumpster, likely stacked with New Radicals or Citizen King CDs.
Besides introducing Butler to the masses, Dracula 2000’s proudest claim is that it actually came out in 2000 unlike such Y2K-hyping fakers as Blues Brothers 2000 or Pokémon: The Movie 2000. A very long 30 minutes pass, though, before we get a good look at Butler, otherwise seen in shadows or subliminal flashes of ecstasy and terror unfolding in the mind of Mary Van Helsing (Justine Waddell) as she sleeps or works at the Virgin Megastore.
Butler had to settle for third billing behind Waddell and Jonny Lee Miller, who plays a protege of Mary’s pops trying to take down Dracula. It won’t be easy. Unwittingly released from a century of sepulchral slumber by antique-stealing cyber-criminals, Dracula is resurrected with a major glow-up and let loose during Mardi Gras in New Orleans.
Once Lussier has good reason to perch Butler on Bourbon Street’s parapets — a wind machine blowing his screen-filling mane to and fro — it gives Butler a chance to establish that he’s more than a junior-varsity Dougray Scott. He’s a wild- and wide-eyed, ravenous, hungry villain dripping with virulent masculinity and a musk that’s equal parts Drakkar Noir and leave-in conditioner. A far cry from the beleaguered, bearded bluster with which he has contemporarily cornered the market, Butler plays this 21st-century bloodsucker as a Vidal Sassoon lookbook on legs.
If Butler errs anywhere, it’s in his long-limbed attempt at a creepy stalking walk before he transforms into a wolf. But who can blame him for a few seconds of noodly limbs after he’s been tasked with carrying the movie? Otherwise, Butler’s character sends even the buttoned-up women who browse the Virgin Megastore Christian hip-hop section into faint-headed swoons, appreciates contemporary culture by making time to watch a Monster Magnet music video on a giant screen, and even persuasively shit-talks Jesus during the film’s climactic sequence.
That’s right: This Count Dracula has a particular aversion to silver because he’s actually Judas Iscariot, who took 30 pieces of the stuff in exchange for selling out J.C. to the Romans. He wants to follow his frenemy’s example and use his newfound freedom to remake the world in his own vampiric image, and it’s to Butler’s credit that we see Dracula shift from pure instinct to feed upon his resurrection into an initiative with which he could rule the world. Alas, the heroes figure out the only way to kill this Dracula is to reenact Judas’s death. Thus, Butler’s final moments find him twitching at the end of a noose draped from a NOLA rooftop, a smiling neon Jesus gazing down upon him as he bursts into flames.
There is no show-stopping, sung lamentation from this Judas beforehand; we’d have to wait four years for Butler to show off that side of himself. But the actor at least depicts a fleeting glimpse of the tortured-soul mercy that powered his turn as The Phantom of the Opera — releasing Mary from the curse of vampirism he’s placed on her before he expires and the Linkin Park end-credits song kicks in.
Dracula 2000 does little to dissuade its legacy as a terrible movie, and one would presume it asks so very little of Butler beyond hissing through high-grade Halloween City fangs. But if you consider that actors have won Oscars simply for conveying a character through bad chompers, you’ll understand how his sheer charisma can work here. It would be a few years before he would break beyond a very bad Michael Crichton adaptation or an even worse Tomb Raider sequel that would come to litter the “VHS Blowout” shelves at the Virgin Megastore. But Dracula 2000 illustrates that Butler had stardom in his blood all along.
The Butler Did It continues every Monday and Thursday through April. Please check back for future installments.