Angel Has Fallen punches the clock for a third turd

The Gerard Butler-starring franchise is getting pretty long in the tooth – but that might actually be the most interesting thing about it.

The Has Fallen franchise is fascinating to me chiefly because it seems to exist out of a sense of obligation. Even if everyone hopes a movie will make money, it seems that no one actually expected a dishwater-brown cut-rate blockbuster that seemed mostly designed to employ a bunch of Millenium Films regulars would actually be a success. The original film, Olympus Has Fallen, is not a movie that has a tremendous amount of enthusiasm to it — it’s workmanlike and functional at best. But, for some reason, people flocked to it despite the fact that they pointedly do not flock to any other movie starring Gerard Butler and Aaron Eckhart. Now, here we are, six years later, faced with an even more cut-rate and even more workmanlike sequel that no one seems particularly enthused for — three times over.

London Has Fallen, the second film in the series, represented perhaps a nadir of wide-release action filmmaking: the Babak Najafi-directed programmer is nigh-unwatchable, a beer-bottle-coloured headache of digital video stabilization and subterranean confusion. Suffice to say that the series had practically nowhere to go but up in spite of its very tepid reaction to its own existence. Sure enough, the third installment Angel Has Fallen is a cut above its predecessor, thanks in large part to director Ric Roman Waugh’s brawny, no-nonsense action style and, to a lesser degree, the film’s slow-but-certain acceptance of its own tired existence. 

The film begins a few years after the events of London Has Fallen: Benjamin Asher is no longer president (and Aaron Eckhart is, in fact, nowhere to be seen), having been replaced by his own VP, Allan Trumbull (Morgan Freeman). Mike Banning remains a Secret Service agent but is seriously considering giving it all up, in part because of his failing health and in part because of his wife (Piper Perabo, stepping in for Radha Mitchell — another surefire sign that a franchise is healthy, right?) and child. 

He considers taking up with his old friend Wade Jennings (Danny Huston), a former ranger turned private contractor who has built a fortified training compound in the hopes of getting a lucrative government contract, but decides against it, a decision he comes to regret when a drone strike takes out the President’s entire security detail while on a fishing trip. Banning manages to jump in the water and save the President, but when he wakes up, he finds that everyone on Earth thinks he ordered the drone strike on the President. He goes on the lam in an attempt to clear his name, constantly tailed by the real perpetrators of the crime (the identity of which should come as no surprise, even based on the limited information I’ve given you).

Though they’re action movies, the Has Fallen movies exist in an irony-free, fun-free zone in which everything is deadly serious at all times and even its villains are glum and airless. (There is no space in these movies for scenery-chewing from a John Malkovich or James Woods.) Consequently, this makes their casual racism and simple politics rather unpleasant — which, mercifully, is not really a problem here. 

Though the film doesn’t really dig into the implications of private contractors more or less overthrowing the goddamn government in order to keep their jobs, the fact that the film has less of a clear-cut villain puts it more in paranoia thriller territory. The film’s middle act sees Banning track down his off-the-grid, survivalist father (a perfectly cast Nick Nolte) and booby-trapping the woods, which is a welcome respite from buildings exploding ad nauseam (although, if you want that, a hospital gets it by the climax). 

Though it’s hampered by generally dodgy CGI (weird, videogame-y fire, an abundance of green screen in sequences that would not ordinarily warrant it like Gerard Butler just sitting in a car), Angel Has Fallen has a handful of actually decent action scenes in its midst. Nothing earth-shattering: a nice low-light backseat fight here, a genuinely stressful drone attack (in which the sky suddenly turns black with drones, like a high-tech variation on The Birds) there… It ain’t exactly John Woo, but bringing an interesting director like Ric Roman Waugh at least affords Angel Has Fallen a tiny amount of spice.

Waugh’s generally plied his trade in much smaller-scale films that give him more of an opportunity to let the characters breathe. While Angel Has Fallen is a more contemplative movie than you’d expect, it’s also an extremely by-the-numbers one where contemplation and boredom are interchangeable. Generally speaking, the overwhelming feeling I had watching Angel Has Fallen was one of checked-out professionalism. It’s so far-fetched that there are three of these films now that everyone involved just shows up and does the work with a kind of resignation, whereas the previous film seemed like it was deliberately sabotaged so that there wouldn’t be more of these.

I have to say that I have a soft spot for this rapidly growing subgenre of blockbusters — blockbusters so compromised and so thoroughly unloved by anyone working on them that they take on this sad, gloomy air. As far as those go, it’s not as depressed as Dark Phoenix or as nihilistically checked-out as Sicario: Day of the Soldado, which makes it much less interesting. (The closest film I can think of in terms of its tone and general lack of enthusiasm is Jack Reacher: Never Go Back — both films aren’t so much good ideas as they are just expected ones delivered with the minimum amount of verve and panache allowable.) It’s a fairly by-the-book, mildly interesting, generally anonymous action film in a landscape where even those are becoming harder to come by, which doesn’t necessarily strike me as the highest of recommendations. But if you compare this to what came before, it’s damn close to being a miracle. ■

Angel Has Fallen opens in theatres on Friday, Aug. 23. Watch the trailer here: