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
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…