Gerard Butler has been an action star since leading the box-office smash 300, but his career has seen him lead low-budget action fare from the ridiculous likes of Geostorm and Gods of Egypt to the political action thrillers White House Down and the first two films in the Fallen franchise. The third film, Angel Has Fallen, sadly does not reverse his trajectory onto an upturn, because it’s devoid of entertainment and suspense thanks to a lack of engaging character work and lazy, uninspired action sequences, despite great chemistry between Butler and franchise newcomer Nick Nolte.
Secret Service Agent Mike Banning finds himself wrongfully accused of attempting to assassinate the President in the third entry of the Fallen franchise.
Brands may be king in today’s film industry, but there are still a few movie stars that select studios consider to lead action movie franchises. Vin Diesel to this day still leads The Fast and the Furious franchise while Dwayne Johnson is sought after for almost every standalone action feature from the disaster flick San Andreas to the video game adaptation of Rampage. Another actor who has found a niche in the action/adventure genre is Gerard Butler, who broke through as a leading man to watch after roles as The Phantom of the Opera in the film adaptation of the self-eponymous Broadway musical, and as King Leonidas in 300. But ever since then, his career has been left to flounder in mid-budget action fare such as Law Abiding Citizen, White House Down, and Hunter Killer.
However, he’s also had a film series to his name in the form of the Fallen franchise, which follows Butler plays Mike Banning, a United States Secret Service agent whose sworn duty is to protect the President of the United States at every cost. The first film, Olympus Has Fallen, saw Banning save the President from an assault on the White House by North Korean terrorists, while its sequel, London Has Fallen, pitted Banning against a band of terrorists looking to assassinate all the leaders of the world at the British Prime Minister’s funeral. Now in the franchise’s latest installment, Angel Has Fallen, the tables have turned for Banning as he finds himself on the run from the United States government when he is wrongfully accused of a crime he did not commit. While Butler continues to show promise as an action lead, he sadly can’t keep his latest movie from being a lazily produced, tone-deaf slog of a film with no substance or joy to be found.
Angel Has Fallen begins with Agent Banning going through a standard training exercise, after which, he begins to feel periodic symptoms of head trauma and general pain following years of combat and injuries on the job. Doctors warn him about the further consequences of putting his head and body through the perils that come with being a Secret Service agent, while his wife Leah (Piper Perabo) implores him to take a desk job, but Banning’s masculine pride leaves him hesitant to give up his place as a serviceman, even when President Allan Trumbull (Morgan Freeman) offers Banning a job himself when they go fishing together. But when a drone attack disrupts their trip and puts President Trumbull in a coma, FBI agents find Banning’s hair and other DNA samples of his in the van in which the drones were operated, leaving Banning as the prime suspect.
Knowing full well he is innocent, Mike Banning has no choice but to fight his way through America’s own law enforcement and lay low with an unlikely ally in his estranged Vietnam veteran father Clay Banning (Nick Nolte), who lives a secluded life in the West Virginia woods away from the watchful eyes of government surveillance. Mike reconnects with Clay as he deduces methods to clear his name while a band of mercenaries led by Wade Jennings (Danny Huston) search for him, and Vice President Kirby (Tim Blake Nelson) enters the role of Acting President with the intent to ‘make America strong again’.
Other than that not-subtle-at-all reference to America’s current commander-in-chief, there’s not a shred of ideas about today’s political landscape to be found in Angel Has Fallen. In fact, there’s no substance to be found in it whatsoever, neither on a character level or a subtextual level, even though the movie takes itself so seriously in tone. The political stakes are there with Trumbull’s health and Kirby’s mysterious intentions, granted, but for a movie that seems poised by its advertising as a trilogy-capper, there’s no emotional weight beyond those surface-level stakes because the film barely spends a glimpse of time delving into the personality of Banning as a character. He neither ruminates over his masculinity, his past, or his adventures in the previous Fallen films, nor does he progressively sell the pain of his sporadic concussions with every action sequence; he only does the latter when it’s convenient to the plot, which moves at a breezy pace but is uninvolving thanks to an abundance of lazy clichés and continuous advancement through empty, expository dialogue.
The action sequences could have elevated Angel Has Fallen up to the level of brainless fun, but sadly, there’s no joy to be had in them because while the ominous rumbling of its musical score asks the audience to take it seriously and get invested, it’s hard to do so when they’re shot with an annoyingly shaky camera that makes them hard to follow, staged in almost pitch-black darkness, or pitting Agent Banning in front of horrific green screen effects. It’s also worth noting that the fight scenes are edited with the tired trick of speed ramps that slow the action down to emphasize how close our hero was to certain doom before suddenly ramping back up to show his landing in front of the massive explosion behind him, while the skies are so blown out in one climactic scene, that viewers are left wondering whether the film skipped the color correction phase of post-production, or if the director of photography forgot to white balance.
All this being said, there is some enjoyment to be had in Angel Has Fallen, and that’s thanks in part to Nick Nolte’s debut in the franchise. As the father figure to Mike, Nolte chews scenery in playing the crazed, paranoid mountain man with a straight face, resulting in great chemistry between him and Butler. The two men seem to be having the most fun when they’re on-screen together, because Banning’s shocked reactions to the plethora of land mines that go off with every gunshot around his father’s cabin feel organic and motivated, and Nolte’s deadpan responses that follow never fail to elicit laughter. Also, while the film’s visual style is lacking in most departments, there are some creative things done with lights, particularly early on when Banning is determined to prove his innocence as the red and blue lights of his police car flicker across his face, and the surround sound mix is immersive in the early goings to draw one’s attention.
Moments like those last only for so long, however, because they’re surrounded by a flat, forgettable narrative that leaves little to the imagination and no ideas to chew on. The talented cast tries to elevate the material they were given, but the fun of Butler and Nolte’s on-screen charisma comes few and far in between scenes where the rest of the ensemble appears lost in looking for their character’s internal motivations in the moment. Fans of Banning’s last two adventures may find something to enjoy, but all others are better off seeing Hobbs and Shaw again if they’re looking for an action fix with energy, suspense, or something to latch onto. It’s easy to categorize the Fallen franchise as something that exists, and as its third entry, Angel Has Fallen fits the bill in every flat, clichéd facet.
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