It’s hard to think of how to phrase this without it sounding accusatory, but Angel Has Fallen is all down to Gerard Butler. As devoted Secret Service agent and presidential “guardian angel” Mike Banning, he’s been instrumental in powering a film that wasn’t even the best “Die Hard but in the White House” movie of 2013 into a full-blown trilogy.
After 2016’s flatulent sequel London Has Fallen, this third instalment scales down the budget and shifts the focus onto Butler’s character and the mounting physical and emotional toll of his exploits. It’s the same approach we’ve recently seen used by other, longer-running action franchises on characters like James Bond and Ethan Hunt. That said, Angel Has Fallen doesn’t show too much interest in being a character study.
At the start of the film, President Aaron Eckhart has vacated office and Morgan Freeman, who played Vice President Allan Trumbull in the first two films, is now commander-in-chief. Against the advice of his doctors, a painkiller-popping Banning remains on active duty, right up until an assassination attempt on Trumbull shakes the nation. With the President in a coma and Banning as the only other survivor of the incredibly precise drone attack, our hero is framed as the mastermind behind it. It’s not long before he escapes custody to clear his name and prevent the real culprits from having another bash at it.
Olympus Has Fallen and its sequels have filled a gap in the multiplex listings for the sort of macho actioner that’s widely considered to be quite retrograde these days. Where some commentators have shrugged “at least it’s less racist than the second one” in their slightly warmer reviews of this third instalment, most of the series’ nastier edges have been filed down on what seems likely to be the final chapter.
It’s been a case of ever-decreasing budgets as the trilogy has gone on, but new director and co-writer Ric Roman Waugh (whose previous efforts include the mid-budgeted crime dramas Snitch and Shot Caller) acknowledges that his star has always provided the production value anyway. Through all three films, Butler’s all-in commitment to this character is watchable even when the action isn’t.
As a character, Banning isn’t anywhere near John McClane in stature, but Butler’s performance is consistently up there with the best of the countless surrogates that populate similar Die Hard knock-offs. With his fondness for sweary banter and stabbing baddies in the head, he’s the unique selling point of this throwback franchise.
The script, co-written with Robert Mark Kamen and Matt Cook, doesn’t exactly challenge him, but he does get to explore the character early on as Banning comes to realise that he’s not as indestructible as previous form would suggest. It doesn’t stop him barrelling through the rest of the movie, but that’s more than we’ve seen McClane do in the Die Hard sequels.
However, the story isn’t up to much. It’s not so insultingly basic as to conceal that Danny Huston’s private military contractor is going to turn out to be the bad guy for longer than 20 minutes of the running time, but even in departing from the tone of previous instalments, it hews more closely to the formula of B-movie conspiracy thrillers.
Frankly, everyone should know by now that Banning eats freedom fries and shits red, white, and blue (and that he absolutely will not seek medical help for that), but as the only other returning star, Freeman’s Trumbull is out of the picture for most of the running time. Instead, the film piles in new characters, played by Jada Pinkett Smith and Lance Reddick, to power what little intrigue there is.
Meanwhile, the perceived ultra-conservative bent of previous films gives way to a more moderate yet equally exasperating sub-plot involving alleged collusion with the Russians. While the film starts out trying to make their characters into old friends, it falls to Huston’s glorified henchman to be a face for Banning to punch in his life-and-death battle against an ill-defined deep state.
Except for a couple of quirks, you could easily map this story onto Taken 3, a film that similarly focused on domestic enemies after two rounds of flogging foreign antagonists. Happily, the quirkiest of those quirks evokes another threequel, just as long as you’re content to accept that Nick Nolte is to Gerard Butler what Sean Connery is to Harrison Ford.
Bursting in like a Unabomber Santa, Nolte gives the film’s second act a much-needed kick up the arse as Mike’s hermit father Clay, a Vietnam vet with an affinity for C4 explosives. The fractious relationship between the Banning boys gives the film its most intentional comedy and, weirdly, its most touching scenes. They also tee up the hilariously odd mid-credits scene, which is unmissable for its WTF factor alone.
As a trilogy topper, Angel Has Fallen is simultaneously a departure from previous instalments and the most formulaic actioner of the bunch. Although there’s little in it that elevates it above the direct-to-DVD shelves where this fare languishes nowadays, Butler and Nolte heave it onto the big screen with sheer gusto. Purely on the grading curve of this franchise to date, it’s a 3-star entry, but you can instantly subtract a star if they ever make another one.
Angel Has Fallen is in cinemas now.