The Has Fallen series has always been somewhat reminiscent – in one key regard – of the Taken films: the complete lack of genuine interest, from filmmakers, in the backstories of characters. In Taken, Liam Neeson played a character called Bryan Mills, and, between bouts of violence, we get to see him have a barbecue with his friends, teach his daughter to drive… and any number of other day-to-day activities in which we’d no investment, as it always felt that if the filmmakers could have got away with omitting all of that stuff, they would have. Even the name felt as though the exchange went something like “we have to give him a name? What shall we call him?” “Dunno… Bryan?”. For Liam Neeson, read Gerard Butler as Mike Banning: bland secret service agent extraordinaire.
The two previous entries in the series, 2013’s Olympus Has Fallen, and 2016’s London Has Fallen saw Banning protect Aaron Eckhart’s President, while Morgan Freeman’s Vice President, generally, just looked concerned. The first film had vast amounts of ropey dialogue (“Why don’t you and I play a game of fuck off. You go first.”), but few actually realised flesh and blood characters. Its impact on the public was also limited somewhat by competing White House invasion thriller, Roland Emmerich’s White House Down. The first sequel brought the action to London, yet nonetheless managed to drive up the jingoism still further, and to play to the worst instincts of stereotyping those parts of the world that, traditionally, the US doesn’t understand: “Fuckheadistan” was neither clever, nor necessary. Added to this, the action was scattershot: going for an approach of throwing everything at the screen. Guns were fired at everything, whether we could tell what that something was, or not. Butler moved well, and did his best with the material, as he’s done all the way through a career of often questionable choices: starting in such classics as the second Angelina Jolie Tomb Raider film, and the abysmal Gods of Egypt. Still, Banning became a father last time out, so… you know, character work an’ that.
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Angel Has Fallen returns the action to the United States. Having run out of plots for this workaday series, director Ric Roman Waugh helms an entry that owes a lot to films such as the first Mission: Impossible and the 1975 Sydney Pollack-directed, Robert Redford-starring Three Days of the Condor: by framing our lead for the murder of his team. Leaning into the trope of the leading man self-medicating to cope with injuries and personal demons, Mike Banning accompanies the President (Morgan Freeman’s Alan Trumbull now in the hot-seat), along with a full secret service detail, on a fishing trip.
When a drone attack kills the entire team, with the exception of Banning and the President, FBI Agent Helen Thompson (Jada Pinkett Smith) uncovers evidence that Mike may be responsible (yes, of course he’s been framed). With the President comatose, and Banning’s injuries only exacerbated by the attack, our lead escapes detention. Now on the run, the agent must evade capture long enough to find those responsible, and to bring them to justice.
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This series has never really sought to tax the brain, and Angel Has Fallen is no exception. Dialogue is kept – in general – basic, and the film is cliché all the way. When Banning meets old forces colleague Wade Jennings (Danny Huston), cue his friend telling utterly pointless and not particularly interesting stories to Banning’s wife about their time together (Piper Perabo replacing Radha Mitchell as Leah): complete with delighted reaction to these tales – which, of course, make Mike look amazing. There really isn’t anything approaching surprise in this, ensuring Angel Has Fallen remains as resolutely B-Movie as its predecessors. That sense is heightened still further by some green screen work that whilst not horrific (it would have passed muster even ten years ago) does show that the creatives are not quite working with top-line budgets here.
So the film is limited in scope, ambition, and freshness; but it’s also, comfortably, the strongest of the series. That awkward sense that we’re watching yet another Die Hard knock-off – as was the case with Olympus Has Fallen – isn’t there this time. The dumb jingoism that afflicted both of the first two entries is missing (thankfully), and the troubling casual racism of the second film isn’t repeated. In its place is a film that has finally discovered a working sense of humour. All of these films think they are funny; but “funny” usually means testosterone-laden alpha males insulting each other with poor quality one-liners. That does factor here, but with Mike encountering his long lost father Clay, we get to see Butler’s all-action lead play off Nick Nolte – who is playing fully into the reputation he’s carried for decades now for spectacular eccentricity. This is supported by decent, realistic-sounding, if perfunctory, dialogue, that manages – sometimes – to be reasonably sharp: a number of exchanges do prompt genuine laughs. This will never be mistaken for anything other than a B-movie, but standards have definitely risen.
There’s also some success in making Banning a three-dimensional character. Again, for the old buddy telling war stories to the wife, read Liam Neeson having a barbecue or teaching his daughter to drive: but this film commits to that extra screen time for the family, and allows – through Clay – a glimpse into Mike’s past. Though only concentrating on it intermittently, Mike’s health and injuries remain a factor throughout the film, with the visible ageing of Gerard Butler adding weight to the feeling that this is an agent reaching a fork in the road, and nearing the time he will need to choose a different kind of life.
Reaction to this film will depend entirely on viewer expectations. The series remains short on inspiration – on having anything new to add to the genre. It is a series built on tropes we’ve seen many times before: to the point that the reveals of the bad guys this time may be the least shocking events in cinema this year. Within these limitations, however, Angel Has Fallen is of a higher standard than anything else this series has provided; and with decent performances, an attempt to freshen the format, and – finally – some meat on the bones of our main character, beyond the lazy pregnant wife device of the last film, this lands as the first film in the series not to play as a parody of a tired genre. Whilst that stops short of outright recommendation, there really isn’t too much wrong with the film. At this stage inoffensive competence is a big win.