Intermittently this summer, we'll be taking an historical tour of the Hollywood blockbuster by examining an older film that is in some way a spiritual precursor to one of the weekend's wide releases. This week: I regret to say, Angel Has Fallen exists now, bringing back Gerard Butler's meaty Secret Service agent Mike Banning for a third go-round. Time for me to face the music and deal with the fact that I never reviewed the second.

Olympus Has Fallen is a bad garbage movie, but it is at least a functional object; the reason that "Die Hard on a _____" became a cliché was because it provides such a clean, effective, plug-and-play formula for an action movie. So it was with 2013's "Die Hard in the White House". Not good, no: not good at all. But it works. You can watch it. You can parse it. Those italicised words have no business at all as we show up to talk about Olympus's highly improbable three-years-later sequel, London Has Fallen, which already sounds like ridiculous bullshit just from its title. "Olympus has fallen" - yes, we can do something with that. A place metaphorically equated to Mount Olympus has been corrupted and taken by hostile forces. Whereas, "London has fallen" - like, into the Thames? If you're not involved in a war of conquest, cities don't "fall". Oh my fucking Christ, it's because of "London Bridge has fallen down", isn't it? I just right now figured that out, all these years later.

At any rate, London Has Fallen is a pretty great title for the movie it accompanies, because I can't make any fucking sense of that, either. The scenario is straightforward enough: Pakistani terrorist Aamir Barkawi (Alon Moni Aboutbul) and his son Kamran (Waleed Zuaiter) were the only survivors of a drone strike on a family wedding that was specifically designed to target the two of them. Two years later, he hatches his revenge plot: the Prime Minister of Great Britain dies suddenly, and as the leaders of all the world's major governments meet for his funeral, a flawlessly co-ordinated series of attacks throughout London leave several of them dead. But we of course only care about the President of the United States, Benjamin Asher (Aaron Eckhart) - it's extremely that kind of movie. And really, we don't even care about him: we care about Mike Banning (Gerard Butler), the secret service agent who was assigned to lead Asher's security detail, and who a couple of years prior to this had that whole thing were he single-handedly saved Western democracy from North Korea. And now Banning has a new mission: keep the president safe as they try to escape London, and evade Barkawi's plot to execute Asher live on the internet.

Again, the scenario is straightforward enough. The execution of that scenario is most certainly not. The script has four credited writers, arranged such that it suggests at least three distinct drafts, and the version that was shot feels like a stitched-together assembly of ideas for individual scenes, with only the flimsiest pretext for how they all fit together. But even that isn't so much of a problem: it's an action movie, after all, and action movies have been making "setpieces vaguely connected by a general impression of forward momentum" a viable narrative strategy for as long as action movies have existed. The general impression of forward momentum is the part where London Has Fallen runs into trouble: it takes so long to get around to clearly defining its stakes (it's not until past the one-hour mark that it has an actual conflict that goes longer than any one given scene), so instead of feeling like it's building in intensity towards the inevitable showdown between Banning and Barkawi, it's basically just a new obstacle course for the agent to overcome so that he can encounter the next one.

Even that might kind of work; it could at least be an adequate way to waste some time, the way countless mediocre genre films have been throughout the years. But if London Has Fallen has, at best, a sub-par screenplay, its storytelling woes are meaningless compared to the abysmal butchery it makes of its action scenes. The film was the English-language directorial debut of Babak Najafi, and it's not the kind that gives one much hope for his future (and, indeed, his future would prove to be very hopeless: his next film was 2018's Proud Mary, one of the small number of 2010s action films that's even more incompetent than London Has Fallen). The film is inordinately difficult to parse at the simplest level of where characters are standing relative to each other, let alone making sense of its various action scenes. There's no flow between shots, no sense of a space being created, no momentum; it's just a bunch of noisy events attached to flat, emotionless reaction shots.

The latter can be partially explained by Gerard Butler being awful, of course; one does not cast him for his expressive (truthfully, I don't know why one casts him), and the best he can offer in a role like this is a very angry face with a gravely, slightly painful American accent being shouted out of it. But the bigger problem with London Has Fallen is how weightless all of the explosions feel. The CGI in this film is unusually obvious, with even long-solved problems like explosions and dust clouds coming out with a slick digital sheen, demanding more than even a very generous suspension of disbelief can accommodate. And given that the film's whole gimmick is familiar London landmarks being engulfed in flame (so much so that a newscaster at one point describes the destruction of those landmarks with infinitely more pathos and anguish than she uses is mentioning the body count of the attacks), if those flames look shitty, the film is pretty well doomed. Actors always enter into an implicit contract with filmmakers: we'll look at empty space and act like it is horrifying, and you will make us not look like idiots in post-production. Well, London Has Fallen makes them all look like idiots.

It makes them sound like idiots, too; the screenplay has some utter doggerel that it tries to pass off as exposition. One of the nastiest tricks the movie has to play is handing that exposition off to stupidly good array of talent: Melissa Leo, Robert Forster, Morgan Freeman, and Jackie Earle Haley all exist in the film almost exclusively to stare at computer screens in Washington and declare plot points, at which point the action cuts back to Butler stretching his jaw muscles while exerting himself in what we must, for want of counter-evidence, assume to be the same plot point. Angela Bassett doesn't even have it that good, mostly just reciting "go be a hero" boilerplate at Butler until she gets shot midway through and is blissfully saved from having to do anything else in the movie.

And of course, just to top it all of, the film has just the absolutely grossest politics. The whole plot hinges on the most appalling bit of speculation: yes, both Presidents Bush and Obama very famously droned entirely wedding parties to death, but what if they, like, deserved it? With that as its backdrop, nothing that actually happens in the film seems particularly egregious, though it is some inordinately tasteless shit, making a ticking-clock scenario out of a live execution video, and letting Butler midwife the graceful word "Fuckheadistan" into the world. A reactionary impulse is all part of the fun of shitty '80s-style action, of course, but London Has Fallen isn't fun, is the problem, and its overall angry thickness, manifested in the form of Butler's agonising central performance, makes it feel too grounded in some kind of floating digital reality for its plot to play as fantasy. No, this acts like it genuinely wants to make us think about the world around us, and it is far too bad a work of cinema to get away with anything other than having it star bellow and fire a gun. Hell, it's not even good at that.

Reviews in this series
Olympus Has Fallen (Fuqua, 2013)
London Has Fallen (Najafi, 2016)
Angel Has Fallen (Waugh, 2019)