Movie Review ~ Angel Has Fallen


The Facts
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Synopsis: Secret Service Agent Mike Banning is framed for the attempted assassination of the President and must evade his own agency and the FBI as he tries to uncover the real threat.

Stars: Gerard Butler, Piper Perabo, Lance Reddick, Morgan Freeman, Jada Pinkett Smith, Nick Nolte, Danny Huston

Director: Ric Roman Waugh

Rated: R

Running Length: 120 minutes

TMMM Score: (6.5/10)

Review: From the law of diminishing returns, it wouldn’t have been out of the realm of possibility for me to think Angel Has Fallen was going to be a disaster.  Consider the facts.  When Olympus Has Fallen was released in 2013 it became a surprise success, coasting along and benefiting from the abundant patriotism of its audience.  It restored some faith to star Gerard Butler’s shaky career and gave stalwart actors such as Morgan Freeman, Melissa Leo, Angela Basset, and Aaron Eckhart a chance to chew the scenery without getting too much gunk caught in their pearly whites.  Three years later, London Has Fallen arrived and, though it made a sizable amount at the box office, it was an ill-timed, ugly-American movie that was film garbage at its most xenophobic.  Truth be told, I wasn’t even aware a third movie was on its way until the first poster and preview popped up a few months back.  After the disastrous previous outing, I had little interest in seeing where this franchise was heading.

So imagine my surprise to find that Angel Has Fallen is not only better than London Has Fallen but wound up being the best of the series so far. Turns out that all these movies needed was a judicious trim of the star quotient, a refocus on more homegrown enemies, and a director with a fresh take on balancing action with drama that doesn’t detract from the pace.  With Butler and Freeman the only two returning actors from the first movies (Piper Perabo replaces Radha Mitchell as Butler’s wife), there’s space for screenwriters Robert Mark Kamen and Matt Cook to make this outing less wholly about wall to wall action and give more time to personal moments for Butler and a few new characters.

Secret Service Agent Mike Banning (Butler, How to Train Your Dragon 2) remains a top performer in his role leading the security detail around the President of the United States (Morgan Freeman, Lucy, happily awake and alert) but the job is taking its toll physically and emotionally.  Though he’s in line to take over as director of the Secret Service, he’s hiding a growing reliance on painkillers and shrugging off lasting effects of numerous concussions and injuries sustained in the line of duty.  More concerned with being there for his wife (Perabo, Looper) and a consistent presence for his young daughter, he’s weighing the President’s offer to take on the role when his team comes under siege during an otherwise routine fishing trip.  The first of several well designed action sequences employing a clever use of next-gen technology, it doesn’t bother too much with logic but sets its target on maximum thrill.

Though he winds up saving the President, Mike is the only one from his unit to survive, which raises suspicions from his direct leader (Lance Riddick, White House Down) and a no-nonsense FBI Agent (Jada Pinkett Smith, Girls Trip, giving her most no-nonsense glares toward the camera) who launches an investigation into Mike. When Mike is discovered to have suspicious documents with ties to Russian intelligence on his computer not to mention a few extra million dollars in an offshore bank account, he realizes an old colleague (Danny Huston, All I See Is You) and perhaps another mystery player to be revealed later are framing him.  With the President out of commission and the Vice President (Tim Blake Nelson, Lincoln) stepping in as Commander in Chief, the tensions mount as a growing distrust of Russia is used as ammunition in firing up the war machine that’s long been dormant.

So begins a cross-country chase with Mike trying to stay one-step ahead of government agents and a horde of shadow operatives desperate to keep their agenda hidden and larger plans on track.  By cutting Mike off from his crew, family, and friends it allows Mike some good moments to get creative with his evasion, not to mention escaping one dangerous situation after another.  It also lets Butler show some new sides to this character, something the actor clearly is enjoying.  For a while Butler was appearing in some real turkeys and not seeming to care how much his reputation was suffering from it.  In the last few years his films have taken a more deliberate path – the movies may not be all that different on the surface but looking at the flawed characters he’s taking on now you can see what drew him to the role.

I’m betting a reunion with a man from Mike’s past (Nick Nolte, A Walk in the Woods) is a large part of what got Butler excited to come back for a third time.  Bringing in Nolte was an inspired choice as the actor, like Butler, got a little lost inside his image for a time until he took a step back and got a hold on his career in a more concentrated way.  Nolte is the highlight of the film, a lovable grump living a solitary life in the forest and none to happy to be disturbed by Mike’s appearance.  It’s nice to see Nolte and Butler so engaged on screen and with each other, especially in one grand scene where Mike discovers just how much this mystery man has been preparing for unwanted visitors. The squabbling between the two drifts ever so slightly into a buddy-comedy film at times but it’s a welcome reprieve from some of the darker turns the film takes.

That’s one thing about all these films that I, in many ways, respect.  Though it features recognizable faces and notable nearly A-list stars, the filmmakers are not at all opposed to killing people off in rather cruel ways.  The difference in this film is a less cavalier attitude after the fact.  In Olympus Has Fallen there were too many wisecracks with each deathblow. With London Has Fallen, the bloodlust overwhelmed the plot and added to the overall nastiness of that film.  Here, though people are snuffed out with brutal efficiency (including one that’s truly shocking) there’s no pleasure taken by those on screen or in the audience.  Just that small adjustment makes a huge difference in the tone of the film and how it rolls out over the audience.

Director Ric Roman Waugh makes some smart choices in the assembly of the movie but ultimately he does allow the movie go on too long.  One more pass by an experienced editor could have trimmed some extra fat off the running time but for the most part Angel Has Fallen trucks along nicely.  The plot is entirely predictable and if I didn’t know better I would have sworn this was a script unrelated to the franchise that Butler scooped up and had tailored into a Mike Banning film.  Though you’ll be able to spot the plot twists a mile away, it somehow doesn’t make much difference because the movie is so otherwise engaging.   I did have trouble following some of the action/chase sequences that were set at night, at times everything just became a blur of flack jackets, fists, blood, and scruff. Thankfully, the important moments in the film happen in the daylight so it’s easy to follow the well-choreographed fight sequences, though some of the special effects, especially near the end, get pretty iffy.

I thought after the last film that I was done with Banning and could easily see this character be put to bed but I’m cautiously optimistic there’s a continuing future for this character if Butler and his team keep additional chapters as sturdy as this one is.  It’s clear the wrong steps of the other films were in the direction of making the threat too broad; by making the danger closer to our hero it upped the ante for him and the audience cheering for him to clear his name. Maybe next time they can let Perabo get out of the kitchen (I swear every scene she’s doing something around her center island) and allow her to get into some of the action…

Movie Review ~ London Has Fallen

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The Facts
:

Synopsis: In London for the Prime Minister’s funeral, Mike Banning discovers a plot to assassinate all the attending world leaders.

Stars: Gerard Butler, Aaron Eckhart, Morgan Freeman, Alon Moni Aboutboul, Angela Bassett, Robert Forster, Jackie Earle Haley, Melissa Leo, Radha Mitchell, Sean O’Bryan, Charlotte Riley, Waleed F. Zuaiter

Director: Babak Najafi

Rated: R

Running Length: 99 minutes

TMMM Score: (1/10)

Review: Those looking to fill up on their xenophobia quotient for the year should look no further than London Has Fallen, an ugly, tacky sequel to 2013’s Olympus Has Fallen which prided itself on being merely tacky.

It’s been three years since Mike Banning (Gerard Butler, How To Train Your Dragon 2) single handedly saved the President of the United States (Aaron Eckhart, Erin Brockovich) and an assortment of White House staffers (Angela Bassett, Melissa Leo, Robert Forster, Sean O’Bryan) from a troop of North Korean militants that descended upon 1600 Penn Ave. Now older (and looking it), wiser, and about to be a dad, Banning is considering hanging up his gun and nesting with his wife (an underused Radha Mitchell) and new arrival.

Before he can send his resignation e-mail, though, Britain’s Prime Minister unexpectedly dies and his funeral calls many heads of state to the forefront to pay their respects in London. Before you can say bangers and mash, Banning and the President find themselves under siege again…this time by a Middle Eastern arms dealer out for revenge in a most public fashion. So begins a chase film where an unending bevy of bad guys pursue POTUS and his security man through the deserted streets of London.

There’s a serious lack of taste to the film. I guess I just get really skeeved out when the central topic of an American-made movie is a terrorist plot to capture and execute (by beheading) the leader of our country live on the Internet. Does it hit to close too home when we see/hear about these brutal murders broadcast for wartime propaganda? Sure does and it doesn’t mean I take any pleasure in seeing a movie about it. It’s also pretty sickening in terms of the Islamic panic created by the screenwriters and director who don’t waste any opportunity to have Butler graphically murder a terrorist while delivering a “America, F**K yeah!” quip. Hearing audience members applaud and cheer this on definitely made my stomach turn.

I’ve yet to quite figure out what makes Butler such a draw for audiences and studios. Though in demand much less these days, he’s still managing to get work despite his acting chops that are on par with the Segals and VanDammes of similar films. He looks terrible here, appearing as if he hasn’t slept in the years since the last film opened. Eckhart also is quickly taking a nosedive on the reliability department. Though saddled with some severely awful dialogue, a smarter actor would have found a way to make his performance interesting, if not at least consistent. Poor Bassett (Chi-Raq) is treated rather terribly by the writers and Leo (Prisoners), so astoundingly bad in the original, is featured in over a dozen scenes but has but two lines. She looks positively in pain to be appearing here…obviously contractually obligated to do so. I’ll love Morgan Freeman (Lucy) forever but to say he’s phoning it in here would be insinuating he even bothered to dial in. Actually, Freeman and Leo appear mostly in one boardroom set…it’s clear they filmed their scenes in one or two days. The only bright spots in the darkness (literally, most of the film is hard to see thanks to poor lighting designed to hide the cardboard sets) are Mitchell and Charlotte Riley (In the Heart of the Sea) as a MI-6 agent. Sadly, neither lady gets much to do.

Special mention must be made to the bargain basement level special effects that unfortunately feature heavily into the picture. Explosions look like they were lifted directly off of a Nintendo DS and the only time that Butler and Freeman are on screen together it’s clear that neither actor was in the same room. Poor green screen backdrops are the icing on the cake and make me wonder if the entire film wasn’t shot in a warehouse in Glendale.

Olympus Has Fallen was a hunk of cheese left on the kitchen countertop for a few hours but its sequel is positively rancid. Reveling in ugly American nastiness, cheaply made, and badly acted it’s a film likely to be positively received only at a Donald Trump rally.

Movie Review ~ The Expendables 3

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The Facts:

Synopsis: Barney augments his team with new blood for a personal battle: to take down Conrad Stonebanks, the Expendables co-founder and notorious arms trader who is hell bent on wiping out Barney and every single one of his associates.

Stars: Sylvester Stallone, Jason Statham, Jet Li, Dolph Lundgren, Randy Couture, Terry Crews, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Wesley Snipes, Antonio Banderas, Mel Gibson, Harrison Ford, Kellan Lutz, Ronda Rousey, Victor Ortiz, Glen Powell, Kelsey Grammer

Director: Patrick Hughes

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 126 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (4/10)

Review: I believe that part of being a balanced critic is to a) see most every film that comes your way and not just the latest blockbuster and b) being able to view a film for what it is and try to put yourself in the place of its intended audience. As a child of the 80s that grew up with action films featuring the headliners of these films, I was amped to hear they’d be brought together for The Expendables. When I finally saw the much-hyped film in 2010 I was awed by how ugly a film it was and how its one-joke premise stalled out before the first reel was done. Though 2012’s The Expendables 2 showed signs of improvement, it too faltered when it came to being more than the sum of its muscly, scar-tissued parts. It would be great to report back that the third film of the franchise finally knocked it out of the park but it’s actually a step backward, proving that logic, decent effects, and convincing performances are the true expendables on display.

Clocking it at an astounding 126 minutes and devoid of the CGI blood that pushed the first two entries into silly R-rated territory, The Expendables 3 feels neutered into a PG-13. Nothing much happens and nothing is truly at stake for our rag-tag bunch of mercenaries and certainly not for audiences. At least its predecessors had a little bit of loss to overcome…here the overstuffed script just puts everyone through the motions while making sure that every one of the hardly recognizable yet oddly familiar action star faces gets at least one zinger in.

Stallone (Escape Plan, and looking like he’s getting into character to play the title role for a live-action Droopey Dog) is as mush mouth as ever as the leader of The Expendables who are found as the film opens racing alongside a prison train to free Doc (Wesley Snipes). It’s one of the least exciting openers of any action film I’ve seen, though director Patrick Hughes tries to flash it up with a lot of flying fists, kicking legs, and a whopper of an explosion.

Hurtling into another mission that puts the crew face to face with a turncoat from their past (Mel Gibson, gleefully camping it up, whether you like it or not), Stallone and his men spend the rest of the film waxing nostalgic about the past, lamenting the fact that they’re getting older, and taking to task some new whippersnappers that are the next generation of Expendables…all the while being fired at by thousands of armed men that continually miss their shots.

Shot in Bulgaria (and numerous cockpit sets that appear lifted from a mall arcade), the film isn’t as dreadful to look at as the first film but achieves a new dullness thanks to lame green screen effects (I’m positive several of the big name stars weren’t in the same room when they filmed their scenes) and a non-existent visual style that renders the film almost black and white. Everything on screen feels cheap, from the cardboard sets to the CGI effects…leading me to believe that most of the budget went to the star salaries.

That’s not to say the film doesn’t have a few things that keep it from being total crud. Snipes is a refreshing addition to the cast and he gets a nice moment of self-mockery that you’ll see coming but still enjoy. While it may have been a coup for Stallone to land Gibson and Harrison Ford (Working Girl), their presence is more of a curiosity to see than anything really exceptional. Speaking of exceptional, Antonio Banderas (Haywire) should get substantial credit for nearly walking away with the film as a hilariously eager strong-arm for hire. The rest of the gang and especially the new recruits are better left unmentioned, lest they take it as encouragement to continue in their acting careers.

With a built-in audience I expect we haven’t seen the last of The Expendables…and as the film dragged on I started to think of names that could be tossed around to star in future installments. I’ll keep those to myself so I can check off my own personal list, but if the goal is to continue to feature faded names from the past…Stallone is just getting started.

The Silver Bullet ~ The Expendables 3

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Synopsis: The third installment of the action-adventure franchise that follows the exploits of Barney Ross, Lee Christmas, and their associates.

Release Date: August 14, 2014

Thoughts: I can’t tell you how nice it is to actually see a true teaser trailer pop up.  As I’ve lamented recently (check here for an example), the art of the teaser trailer appears to be totally lost with most previews clocking in at a spoiler heavy 2:30.  So it’s nice to see the latest entry in the profitable The Expendables franchise giving audiences a whet whistle before the final hours of 2013 tick away.  Though it’s not releasing until halfway through 2014, this is a nice way to announce the return of a series of films that have worked almost in spite of their BDL (big, dumb, loud) origins.  And you have to hand it to Sylvester Stallone (The Expendables 2); he sure knows how to rally the troops to get a cast that continues to makes 80’s/early 90’s action movie nerds salivate.  The Expendables 3 features a huge roster of stars: Stallone, Jason Statham (Homefront), Jet Li, Dolph Lundgren, Randy Couture, Terry Crews, Arnold Schwarzenegger (The Last Stand), Wesley Snipes, Antonio Banderas (Haywire), Mel Gibson, Harrison Ford (Working Girl), Kellan Lutz (The Legend of Hercules), Robert Davi (Licence to Kill) and Kelsey Grammer

 

Movie Review ~ Olympus Has Fallen

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The Facts:

Synopsis: Disgraced former Presidential guard Mike Banning finds himself trapped inside the White House in the wake of a terrorist attack; using his inside knowledge, Banning works with national security to rescue the President from his kidnappers.

Stars: Gerard Butler, Aaron Eckhart, Morgan Freeman, Angela Bassett, Dylan McDermott, Ashley Judd, Melissa Leo, Rick Yune

Director: Antoine Fuqua

Rated: R

Running Length: 120 minutes

TMMM Score: (5/10)

Review:  It’s been said that timing is everything and if that’s true then the producing team behind Olympus Has Fallen should have listened to that wise old saying when it came time to release their film concerning a hostile takeover of the White House.  Released back in March at the height of tensions between North Korea and the US, the film did respectable business but was nowhere near the type of pre-summer hit that everyone involved must have hoped for.

Truth be told, I’m not sure that the final product would have ever really caught on regardless of when it was released because it’s a largely goofy affair that scores highly on the tension scale but exhausts itself and the audience with melodramatic acting and far too many extraneous plot happenings.  Opening in the shadow of July’s similarly themed White House Down, Olympus never really rises from the ashes of a been-there, done-that vibe that would have seemed more at home in a season of 24.  Oh wait…24 DID do nearly the exact same plot in its second to last season.

Poor Gerard Butler just can’t catch a break when it comes to films.  Though critics may make you think otherwise, he’s never been a true box office draw and a parade of stinkers in the last two years hasn’t helped his clout in Hollywood.  Olympus Has Fallen is probably his best film of the bunch, mostly because it allows Butler’s more macho/muscular streak to emerge rather than bear the weight of the romantic comedy nightmares he’s been stuck in recently.

Here Butler is a former guard to the President, a role he loses after an iffy opening sequence set on an icy bridge involving the First Family.  It’s never adequately explained how/why he gets bumped down a few notches on the Secret Service totem pole but it helps set up his redemption later in the film.  Now he’s a paper pusher with a nice view of his former office from his standard D.C. digs.

When a terrorist attack leaves the White House in shambles and the President and his staff held hostage in an underground bunker, it’s up to Butler to perform a one-man rescue mission by any means necessary.  The bulk of the first half of the film is taken up by the seemingly endless infiltration on 1600 Penn Ave by Korean militants that want the US to pull out of the DMZ between North and South Korea.  To do so would surely mean the fall of South Korea but with the fate of our nation’s leaders at hands what choice do we have.

These kinds of films where US governments are held hostage by a foreign entity always make me squirm because the movies always go the same.  It’s clearly stated that we do not negotiate with terrorists but when you flash a loved one in danger everyone always buckles.  The body count in this one is high which adds some extra suspense in who truly will survive by the time the credits roll.

Working in what must have been left over set pieces from The West Wing, director Antoine Fuqua moves the action around with ease even though most of it takes place in shadowy darkness.  It becomes hard to tell who is who…but when it’s just one man against the bad guys…you just need to focus on Butler and his bone-crushing methods of extracting information about the head villain in charge.

The big bad wolf is Rick Yune (Die Another Day) as one of the least intimidating villains in recent memory.  Though he doesn’t hesitate to put a bullet into more than a few people, Yune’s calm delivery seems more sleepy that sociopathic.  On the opposite side of the hero coin, Aaron Eckhart’s (The Dark Knight, Erin Brockovich) President Asher is underused and not called on to do much but play on his All-American looks to cut a believable presence as the Commander in Chief.

Filling out the cast are several overly earnest performances that never seem to gel with each other.  Morgan Freeman (Oblivion, Now You See Me) is the Speaker of the House that’s thrust in charge when both the President and Vice President become indisposed.  Freeman’s played the President before (in 1998’s Deep Impact) and he’s largely recreating that role here.  Dylan McDermott and Ashley Judd pop up in pivotal roles and poor Radha Mitchell is the victim of overstuffing the turkey as Butler’s wife.  This whole storyline between Butler and Mitchell has nothing to do with the plot and bogs the film down.

Two respected actresses are also on hand and both are fairly disappointing.  Angela Bassett (This Means War) has little to do but give off of looks of both horrified terror and ballsy determination as the Secret Service Director.  With each passing role Bassett seems more determined to simply toe the line and not step out of her comfort zone.  Even worse is Oscar winner Melissa Leo (Oblivion) in an atrocious wig offering line deliverers that seem to be coming via satellite based on the way she pauses before each one.  Leo growls and howls through most of the film…culminating in her unintentionally hilarious recitation of the Pledge of Allegiance in pained agony.  For my money, the actresses should have swapped roles…I’m slightly convinced they mistakenly were given the wrong roles and no one noticed until it was too late.

Even with its silly plot contrivances and less than stellar special effects the film does truck along with reckless abandon that entertains more often than not.  You absolutely have to check your brain at the door and be prepared for some slightly tacky moments near the end when people start cracking jokes while standing in the middle of a sea of dead bodies.    A rental at best, Olympus Has Fallen may eventually get the job done but you’ll have to decide for yourself if it’s really worth it at the end of the day.