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In our era of superheroes who battle both intergalactic villains and their own nagging self-doubt, Mike Banning (Gerard Butler), the hero of 2013’s Olympus Has Fallen and 2016’s London Has Fallen, is an unlikely protagonist for a contemporary action franchise. He’s a throwback to a time when action stars spoke to a reactionary impulse in Americans, and a red-blooded male who has no time for questions before he blows away as many foreign, freedom-hating terrorists as he can. Angel Has Fallen, the newest and worst installment, fails for deviating from its franchise staples.
As we catch up with Banning, his adventures in nation-saving have taken a toll. Middle age is approaching fast, and he suffers from migraines and chronic pain. He is agonizing over whether to accept a desk job, which would allow him to spend more time with his wife (Piper Perabo) and infant daughter, or stay in the field. Destiny decides for him. On a fishing trip with the president (Morgan Freeman), a coordinated drone attack takes out his entire team and critically injures the president. Banning, the only agent left alive, has been framed for the crime, and he goes on the run through the backwoods of Virginia to clear his name.
It’s an attempt at a more intimate story. Angel Has Fallen tries to make Banning a well rounded character, rather than a living, breathing, ass-kicking embodiment of American grit. After Banning escapes from custody, he seeks out his estranged father (Nick Nolte), a Vietnam veteran with PTSD who, since abandoning his wife and child, has lived for decades off the grid. Delving into Banning’s backstory is a noble idea—all franchises have to go somewhere, so why not go inward—and Nolte is terrific, pivoting seamlessly from dramatic monologues to well timed quips. But Butler, whose only acting tool is to vary his level of gruffness, cannot rise to Nolte’s level, so none of it deepens our understanding of the character.
From its chaotic action sequences, badly staged by stuntman-turned-director Ric Roman Waugh, to its far-too-predictable plot twists, Angel Has Fallen is an all-out failure. But its biggest error is its abandonment of the politics that defined it. The film’s choice of villain—I won’t reveal too much here, although it’s laughably easy to figure out—signals a complete reversal of the myopic foreign policy on which the franchise has succeeded. For the first time, the enemy is within, although the film approaches this development so mindlessly it doesn’t get credit for introspection. It’s just another opportunity for Banning to kill some folks.
We would all have been better off had the filmmakers stuck to what this film series does best. Whether or not you enjoy seeing America’s enemies repeatedly shot in the brains, at least it would have maintained a consistency to carry this film through its weaker spots. Angel Has Fallen simply has no reason to exist.
Angel Has Fallen opens Friday in theaters everywhere.