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Angel Has Fallen (2019)

DIRECTOR: Ric Roman Waugh

CAST: Gerard Butler, Morgan Freeman, Nick Nolte, Danny Huston, Piper Perabo, Jada Pinkett-Smith, Tim Blake Nelson

REVIEW:

Despite ever-worsening critical reviews, the “[INSERT CODE NAME HERE] Has Fallen” franchise, like its generically stalwart hero Mike Banning, keeps chugging along. 2013’s Olympus Has Fallen wasn’t any kind of great movie, but it was a surprisingly enjoyable Die Hard knock-off. 2016’s London Has Fallen was a lazy, uninspired, low energy classic example of a sequel slapped together because the original did well at the box office, not because there was anywhere fresh or interesting to take the story. Angel Has Fallen is probably a little better, and at least a little more engaging, than London Has Fallen, but not as good as Olympus Has Fallen. It achieves more-or-less exactly what it promises—-a generic, moderately diverting but immediately forgettable action shoot-em-up—which given this franchise’s track record, is a low bar to hurdle.

This time around, rather than having Banning (Gerard Butler) defending the President, the series tries to vary things up a little by throwing Banning into the cold on his own doing his best impression of The Fugitive. With Aaron Eckhart not returning, Morgan Freeman has been upgraded to Prez this time, which also puts a giant bullseye on his forehead. For his part, the indefatigable Banning is a trainwreck, addicted to painkillers and suffering from concussions, dizziness, and insomnia from his franchise-worth of kicking ass and taking names, but he’d rather run himself to death than face the terrifying prospect of accepting a desk job as Secret Service Director, as he confides to his old Army buddy Wade Jennings, who runs a Blackwater-esque private mercenary force. Poor beleaguered Banning obviously doesn’t get the time to watch enough movies to know his old buddy old pal Wade is clearly the “surprise villain”, but we do because he’s played by Danny Huston. But there’s no rest for the weary, as the President’s entire Secret Service detail gets taken down by a swarm of armed drones, leaving only Banning and a comatose President Trumbull as the sole survivors and Vice President Kirby (Tim Blake Nelson) fast-tracking a retaliatory strike on Russia based on flimsy intel. Banning wakes up handcuffed to a hospital bed, where a chilly FBI agent (Jada Pinkett-Smith) informs him he’s been implicated in masterminding the assassination attempt. Of course, it’s not long before Banning’s on the loose trying to evade the FBI long enough to clear his name and expose the not-so-surprising “surprise villains”, and is forced to seek sanctuary from his estranged Vietnam vet turned backwoods survivalist Dad (Nick Nolte).

Two things—well, probably more than two, but at least two—hold back Angel Has Fallen. One is Gerard Butler himself, who’s no Bruce Willis and doesn’t get any more interesting as he goes along. The other is predictability. If it was meant to be any kind of “surprise twist” that good old Wade is up to no good, the filmmakers should have considered casting him with someone other than Danny Huston, who’s so typecast by this point that it’d have been a surprise if he hadn’t turned out to be a bad guy. This is the least surprising “surprise villain” since Aidan Gillen lived up to his “Littlefinger” typecasting in the second Maze Runner. The other “secret villain” isn’t much harder to figure out (it’s pretty easy math to figure out what government official benefits most directly from the assassination of the President), and the “framed hero must go on the lam to clear his name” plotline plays out beat-by-beat as we’ve seen before time and time again in other action movies. The movie does do at least one thing surprising, when it sets up one character to be an important subplot, then peremptorily dispatches them halfway through, but at the cost of making their whole existence in the plot seem extraneous. Another half-baked plot element are Banning’s surfeit of health issues—addiction to painkillers, headaches, disorientation, insomnia—which feel like they switch on and off as needed by the plot and feel superfluously thrown in at sporadic intervals to add a little extra “tension” (this reminds me a bit of the equally half-developed way Iron Man 3 dealt with Tony Stark’s PTSD).

The action sequences are competent but nothing really special, a series of standard-issue car chases and shootouts and stuff blowing up, and as in London Has Fallen, there’s a couple moments marred by glaringly obvious green screen that seems inexcusably cheap and sloppy for a big-budget mainstream action movie. The villain’s climactic action doesn’t seem to make a whole lot of logical sense on his part, and seems mostly shoved in there so we can have an ending shootout and end, of course, with Gerard Butler and Danny Huston going one-on-one on a rooftop so our old Army bros can try to out “macho man” each other. There’s also some unsubtle political commentary, with our villains being a thinly-veiled Blackwater stand-in (at least switching to domestic villains this time lets Angel avoid London‘s occasionally ugly jingoistic streak) and mentions of Russian election meddling (Morgan Freeman even gets digitally inserted into a G20 summit next to Angela Merkel and Vladimir Putin), and Tim Blake Nelson’s hawkish VP utters the rather Trumpian phrase “make America strong again”.

Gerard Butler, in his third outing as the stalwart Banning and starting to look a little too grizzled and bloated to still be pulling off the action hero thing, clenches his jaw and plows manfully onward. Butler’s not a particularly charismatic actor—or even a particularly good one—but he’s adequate to the occasion, though not much more than that. Morgan Freeman, who’s been promoted with each installment (he started out as Secretary of State, then was Vice President, and now is the Pres himself, the second time he’s held the office after 1998’s Deep Impact), spends two-thirds of his less-than-challenging role here laying comatose in a hospital bed and conveniently unable to exonerate Banning. Danny Huston is exactly what you’d expect of him. Banning’s wife has been recast from Radha Mitchell to Piper Perabo, but it’s such a nothing part that casual viewers are unlikely to notice the difference. Jada Pinkett-Smith, doing her best to act stern and tough-talking, is set up as a dogged “Tommy Lee Jones in The Fugitive“-esque pursuer, but her part ends up being surprisingly superfluous, leaving one wondering what was really the point of her even being in the movie. The only cast member who makes much of an impression is Nick Nolte, having a little fun as a scraggly-bearded backwoods survivalist and providing both a little comic relief and even a fleeting glimmer of something resembling actual emotion (neither of which is anywhere to be found the rest of the movie). A couple scenes of their banter even seem to make the ever-dour Butler lighten up a little. In a movie full of people blandly going through the motions, give Nolte credit for taking his part and managing to make something out of it.

At the bottom line, Angel Has Fallen, like many a generic action movie, is an adequate diversion for someone just wanting an unchallenging way to pass a couple hours at the theater and not demanding a lot, but it evaporates almost immediately in the memory. That doesn’t make it really much appreciably better or worse than its predecessors, but the lack of improvement across three movies might mean that, like the aging Mike Banning, this series should let itself rest.

* * 1/2

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