Olympus Has Fallen was passable junk-action filmmaking: director Antoine Fuqua brought just enough style and lead Gerard Butler managed just enough charisma to make the movie a decent if hackneyed time-waster, even if 2013’s other movie about taking down 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, White House Down, was more self-aware and therefore more fun. However, Olympus Has Fallen was also a sizable international hit, so three years later a sequel has arrived. The film is minus a Fuqua but still retains Butler and most of the first film’s all-star cast, who seem to be working with the mandate of “like the first one, but more.”
But this is not necessarily a good thing: London Has Fallen may have a bigger scope (all of London is under attack, not just one building) and just as much, if not more, action, but it also ramps up the violence, xenophobia, and jingoism in an unpleasant way. The script is not just stuffed with clichés but sails into the realm of being simply ludicrous while Butler’s Secret Service agent Mike Banning, who at least had some sort of redemptive arc in the first film, is almost a cartoon character here, a one-man army who is inexplicably left mostly alone to take down yet another set of cardboard Middle Eastern villains while dragging the hapless president (Aaron Eckhart) along.
Banning, who’s supposed to get some time off to stay home for the arrival of his first child with wife Leah (Radha Mitchell, wasted), is again President Asher’s personal bodyguard and recalled hastily from his break when the UK’s prime minister dies unexpectedly, necessitating that the President fly to London for the state funeral. In fact, all the major world leaders will be there (save that of Russia, as the film points out), which means that it’s a perfect time for terrorist arms dealer Aamir Barkawi (Alon Moni Aboutboul) to launch a multi-pronged attack on the British capital as revenge for something that happened in the film’s prologue.
With brown-skinned men infiltrating the police, other security forces, and the infrastructure of the city itself, the offensive decimates London landmarks and leaves a number of world leaders dead. It’s once again up to Banning to protect his president as they lead the terrorists on a chase through the city involving cars, helicopters, an MI6 safe house, knives, grenades and lots and lots of guns, while Vice President Trumbull (Morgan Freeman collecting an easy paycheck) and other familiar actors who are given nothing to do (Robert Forster, Melissa Leo, Jackie Earle Haley) watch worriedly from the War Room on satellite cameras.
There is something genuinely disturbing about the idea of open warfare on the streets of a city like London that is captured fleetingly in a few moments of the initial terrorist attack, and a better movie might actually do something compelling with that. But London Has Fallen and new director Babak Najafi (best known for Snabba Cash II) have nothing of the sort in mind. The attack itself reaches almost ridiculous heights – it seems mind-boggling that not one of the many aspects of the plan would have come to light in the two years it took to scheme – and once it’s over, the streets of London are not flooded with the military as you might expect but left unfathomably abandoned so that Banning can do his thing.
While Banning relied on wits and cunning in addition to violence to get out of the predicament in Olympus Has Fallen, he goes with only the latter this time out. Butler, who looks like he’s going to burst a blood vessel in every scene, simply becomes a one-man killing machine, impervious to injury himself and able to lay waste to as many enemies as the film can throw at him without breaking a sweat. Bellowing every line like it’s his last (“I’m thirsty as fuck!” he exclaims at one point, drawing guffaws from the audience we saw it with), Butler’s Banning eventually becomes actively unlikable as he either curses or jokes his way through the onslaught of death and devastation he’s laying down, a borderline racist psychopath we’re supposed to root for just because he’s a big American alpha male.
That is where London Has Fallen becomes ugly. Although a moment or two of lip service is paid to the unpredictable outcomes of drone attacks (which is what sets Barkawi’s plot in motion), the good old American mantra of “might makes right” is never called into question, nor are Banning’s ultra-violent tactics. And the fact that not a single soul in the film save for Banning (and possibly an MI6 agent portrayed by an underused Charlotte Riley) is portrayed as being especially capable at combating the menace at hand only makes his seeming superhuman capabilities all the more unbelievable and his unmitigated fury more sickening.
If your own paranoia about some vast, formless “them” storming the gates of America at any time has been stoked by what is currently passing for a Presidential election, then you might find London Has Fallen a satisfying way to channel your anger. But anyone looking for a smarter action film with a little bit of depth to it will find this a tough sit. Even on a technical level it misfires: aside from one exciting car chase, the action is generic and even the CG is shabby in spots. But “shabby” seems to have replaced “passable” as the word to describe this barren franchise.
London Has Fallen is in theaters Friday (March 4).