IN CINEMAS NOW
RUNNING TIME: 120 mins
REVIEWED BY: Dr Lenera, Official HCF Critic
Tough secret service agent Mike Banning’s heroism has caught up with him, leaving him constantly popping pills to stop concussion, migraines and insomnia. Trying to support his wife, Leah, and their young daughter, Mike remains by the side of President Trumbull, who’s about to offer his top agent a job as head of the Secret Service, though Mike isn’t sure he wants to sit behind a desk. While on vacation, Trumbull is attacked by explosive drones, killing everyone except for the President and Mike, who wakes up in a hospital, under arrest for an assassination attempt funded by the Russians. Confused, Mike then realises he’s being framed, and soon escapes custody and sets out to clear his name, but the Secret Service is now after him. Maybe his estranged father, Clay, can help?….
Do we prefer our screen heroes to be supermen who are impervious to everything? Or do we like them more if they’re physically and emotionally vulnerable? For me, it tends to depends on the film and the character. The trouble with Mike Banning, the heroic Secret Service man of the good-ish Olympus Has Fallen and the average London Has Fallen, is that, in his first two films, he’s certainly a real toughie but isn’t very interesting either except for the relish with which he seems to kill people, and Gerard Butler’s iffy, come-and-go American accent which, even in the third installment, one wonders if it was intentional to add a lighter dimension to the intentional seriousness that distinguishes this series a little from most other action franchises. But in this third film, he’s presented as a person whose feats have left him suffering from insomnia, migraines and concussion. “This should make this one truly exciting and give it a real edge” I thought to myself around ten minutes after the film started, a film in which the fact that its leading actor looked a bit fatigued and ‘past it’ seemed to be deliberate or certainly appropriate. But unfortunately this isn’t really followed through. For most of the second half one totally forgets that he’s supposed to be suffering from these conditions that would surely hamper him when he drives, punches and shoots quite often, and the state Butler looks [sorry Gerard] just makes his invincibility come across as ridiculous. By the end, I was wondering why on earth they began by establishing the weak state of Banning the way that they did, as it hardly has any effect on anything.
So, ignoring that tremendous disappointment, how does Angel Has Fallen fare? It’s certainly an improvement on the second film, still containing some of its many flaws like unfinished-looking CGI from absurdly obvious digital backgrounds to computer game-like explosions, though not in as great a quantity. But, while a quick skim indicates that it seems to have got the best reviews out of the three movies, I don’t think it quite reaches the level of the first one, even if it’s probably quite close. Of course some of that might be down to how well the Die Hard formula still tends to work even when we’ve seen it many times. This one feels closer to The Fugitive at times, right down to Jada Pinkett Smith playing the Tommy Lee Jones role, and one thing I did admire it for was keeping the action relatively believable, the odd silly bit like a dangerous-looking truck role that would have probably killed the person driving it but which just resorts in our hero crawling out with a few scratches on his face notwithstanding. While there certainly is some very obvious CGI, there’s no stupid stuff with lots of digital people doing things that defy the laws of gravity that you just end up laughing at and certainly not getting thrilled by. Much of the stunt work certainly seems real, courtesy of director Ric Roman Quagh, a stuntman who’s been in the business since the likes of Lethal Weapon 2 and Road House. His experience in these movies no doubt led him to attempt an action movie with a more old school feel then you normally get today. He succeeds some of the time, but ruins some of the would-be highlights with the employment of that bane of my existence [and hopefully of anybody else who actually likes to see what’s going on in a film]: ‘shakycam’. And he doesn’t even do it quite well which even I will admit certain filmmakers like Paul Greengrass managed to achieve. It’s just an incoherent mess and totally ruins some would-be highlights. And I’d thought this stupid technique was on the decline….
It first appears right at the beginning as Mike and his old army buddy Wade undergo a training exercise, a scene no doubt intended to get things off to a strong start but instead achieving the opposite. Anyway, let’s not get too negative, because there certainly are things to appreciate almost immediately, not least of them Butler himself if you ignore that accent. If you think about, this is the first one of these films where he’s needed to give an actual, fully-fledged performance of a human being, and he does pull it off. Slower paced than certainly London Has Fallen, this one then takes a while to kick of, giving us plenty of chat involving Mike, his wife Leah, his old military mate Wade, and President Trumball, this time played by Morgan Freeman in what is certainly his most committed performance for some time, certainly not just playing Morgan Freeman again. Certain moments remind us of how damn good he can still obviously be as an actor. Then a horde of drones attack Trumball while fishing, and this is reasonably exciting, the first of several scenes where Quagh shows off loads of stunt people getting blown into the air. Trumball survives but is in a coma, leaving Vice-President Kirby to assume power and prepare to declare war on Russia. But is it really Russia who is responsible? It certainly didn’t bother me that the villains were Koreans in Olympus Has Fallen and Islamic terrorists in London Has Fallen, though it did bother a lot of ‘right on’ critics who would presumably only be happy if all bad people in movies were white. But I did find it to be a nice change that, in this one, they’re Americans – though the two main ones are glaringly obvious as soon as they appear on screen, even though it’s obviously meant to be a surprise when their dastardly inclinations are revealed!
So Mike finds himself under arrest, but of course soon gets away in one of the most downright pathetic action moments in some time. Honestly, it’s terrible. Mike battles some bad guys inside a car at night, and it’s nothing more than a blur of hard-to-decipher body movements and quick cuts while lots of grunts are heard on the soundtrack. These people could have been virtually doing anything, even having sex, you’d be none the wiser. The only indication that Mike has been the victor is when he emerges from the vehicle alone. I find it hard that a former stuntman would give us a scene like this, but then David Leitch seems to be going down this route too which is to disappointing. This low point almost made me give up there and then, but – you know what? – things improve fairly substantially after this, which is around two fifths of the way through. Much of this is down to Nick Nolte as Mike’s dad Clay. He walked out on Mike and his mum some years ago to live alone in the woods. The obvious idea here is how war can really damage people, and it’s suggested just a little that the son could be going the same way as his father. It’s subtle, but it’s there. Well, what another interesting idea that would make for a really compelling watch – that is then discarded! Sense a pattern here? But never mind, Nolte really is terrific, he’s still so underrated – from early work like Under Fire, to big hits like 48 Hours, to largely undiscovered gems like Mother Night – he’s never not delivered the goods and given us a fully believable character. And, even though some plot terms are none too believable, when the pace ramps up for a final quarter of non-stop mayhem where the ‘shakycam’ is far less drastic, it’s hard for the action lover not to get carried along. There’s a welcome emphasis on good old-fashioned gunplay, rather than trying to think of the most ridiculous CG-heavy stunt to thrill the viewer [Hobbs and Shaw, I’m looking at you]. It’s a shame that the climactic man-on-man knife fight is so short. Had they ran out of time by then?
Screenwriters Raugh, Matt Cook and the Karate Kid, Taken and Transporter series man Robert Mark Kamen can’t resist throwing in a reference to the Russians hacking into and affecting to presidential race, and one villain says how he wants “to make America strong again”. But, considering how prevalent and blatant political messaging is these days in Hollywood, there’s really surprisingly little of it in this film, despite much of its story involving the Presidency. There does seem to be a slight anti-war message [of course in a film with loads of guns blazing and stuff blowing up], though I like to think that few will see this as a problem. I’m a little surprised by the rating. There’s very little blood and the overall violence level is about equal to Hobbs and Shaw, yet it’s rated ’15’. There’s nothing like some of the vicious material we got in the first film, and I think that’s a shame. There aren’t nearly enough action movies now of the brutal and profane kind that were a dime a dozen not that long ago – though changing audiences [‘R’ rated films seem to appeal less to cinema-goers these days unless they’re horror films or comedies – I don’t know why but it’s true] no doubt play a part in that. I kind of liked the way that Mike used to seem to enjoy killing, it added an edge even if he wasn’t a very interesting character overall. But here, it’s almost a different person that we’re watching, but then the cinema has a history of toning down heroes and making them more family friendly. I wouldn’t be surprised if the next one is deliberately made to get that seemingly all-important ‘PG-13’ certificate.
Angel Has Fallen had a higher budget than its two predecessors, and certainly doesn’t look as absurdly cheap as London Has Fallen did, but there is still evidence of a rushed production in things such as poor colour correction, and the thoroughly boring music score by David Buckley really shows how far the general standard of scoring for this kind of movie has fallen, not possessing a single interesting or memorable musical theme or even ‘hook’. But, despite me probably criticising this film more than praising it, it’s really not bad overall considering the general state of action cinema today. When it soars – which it certainly does in places especially its final act – it does evoke a feeling not that far removed from some of the genre classics of the ’80s and’90s, and there are some surprisingly committed performances. The success of this franchise in this day and age is really quite surprising – but in the end rather pleasing.