Butler Did It
With Awards Season pretty much over (nice job, Spotlight) we can hopefully get back to more quotidian fare for a bit – although, as previously mentioned, Blockbuster Season seems to be creeping outwards in both directions – not that long ago we routinely got a couple of months' breathing space between the Oscars and the first big popcorn movie of the year – it's down to about three weeks now. Frankly, I was glad of the change of pace and so along I trotted to see Babak Najafi's London Has Fallen, the latest vehicle for (deep breath) GERARD! BUTLER!
Extremely long-term readers may recall my one-time enthusiasm for GERARD! BUTLER! and concern for his career, following winning supporting turns in otherwise dodgy films like Reign of Fire and Tomb Raider 2, but then a couple of things happened: firstly, Jason Statham came along, and just as you can only really support one football team, so you can only really get behind one slightly ridiculous action star, and secondly, GERARD! BUTLER! made 300 – so I figured he should be okay from then on, firmly established as a proper leading man.
Hmmm, well. On paper, London Has Fallen looks like silly popcorn fun, a good Bad Movie in the making. You hope to come out of it feeling slightly ashamed but nevertheless generally entertained, but there are always the possibilities of it either being simply dull and foolish, or – perhaps most remote of all – actually a pretty accomplished film. You don't expect to emerge feeling genuinely appalled and quite angry, and yet this is more or less what happened to me.
The film opens as it means to go on with a US drone strike blowing up the wedding of an arms dealer's daughter in Pakistan, and instantly one gets a strong sense of taste barriers being well and truly breached. We skip forward a couple of years and encounter (or catch up with, for those who've seen Olympus Has Fallen, to which this is a sequel) US President Asher (Aaron Eckhart) and his ace bodyguard, swivel-eyed maniac Mike Banning (Butler – I'm going to stop shouting now). A number of rather mechanical character beats follow, as we learn that Banning's wife is heavily pregnant and he is considering resigning from the Secret Service to raise his child.
Then, however, the British Prime Minister unexpectedly drops dead, leading to a short-notice funeral gathering in London, attended by numerous world leaders (at one point the movie describes this as a 'state funeral', which it almost certainly isn't, but this is a tiny, tiny issue compared to everything else going on here). Obviously the dead PM is not Chinless Dave, but the film-makers have a bit of nudge-wink fun in their depiction of the various statespeople – the German chancellor is a severe-looking middle-aged blonde woman, the Italian premier is a bit of a lady's man with a much younger wife, and so on.
So far the film has been a bit of a hard slog, with a lot of plot and character stuff being rather laboriously plumbed in, and no particular sign of a sense of humour on display. Then, however, in the space of a matter of seconds, the film executes an astonishing change of gear and soars off into a realm of howling absurdity. It turns out that most of the emergency services of London, not to mention the British army itself, has been heavily infiltrated by terrorist fanatics, and the whole funeral has been arranged as a massive trap for the visiting dignitaries. The scale on which this happens is utterly ridiculous: every passing ambulance driver pulls out a grenade launcher and starts trying blow Banning and the Prez up. The bearskin-wearing soldiers who guard Buckingham Palace start mowing down onlookers. Every tower block in London suddenly has a terrorist packing a missile launcher on the roof. Logic and credibility are completely discarded in the cause of finding new things to shoot at and/or blow up.
Well, of course, that arms dealer whose daughter got blown up at the start is back for revenge against the forces of the west, and he and his family will not stop until they've completed their sweep of world leaders by taking out the US President too. However they have reckoned without Banning and his swivel-eyed mania!
And, um, yuck. To be honest, it's almost enough to make you long for the omni-competent president of Clinton era films like Independence Day and Air Force One, because I suspect we would then have been spared a dreary, ugly character like Banning at the centre of the film. I wonder how much Eckhart is being paid to essentially play second banana: he inevitably comes across as a rather soft and ineffectual figure, simply because Butler looks better as a result. (Eckhart doesn't even get to make the big stirring speech at the end of the film – that job goes to Morgan Freeman's Veep, because you always want Morgan Freeman making your big speeches if you can manage it.) I say 'better': I found the character almost impossible to like. There's a scene where Banning gives someone a painful, drawn-out death by stabbing, mainly so the victim's listening brother can hear it. 'Was that really necessary?' cries the President, aghast. 'No,' says Banning. It's a sign of London Has Fallen's lack of self-awareness that one plot element is the difficulty people have in telling good guys from bad guys; well, I know how they feel.
I'm not sure such an uncompromising character would be improved by being played with more of a twinkle in the eye and an attempt at warmth, but Butler doesn't even seem to try. At one point he's about to set off to butcher another squad of terrorists, ordering the Prez to hide in a cupboard while he does so. 'What happens if you don't come back?' bleats the leader of the free world. 'You're ****ed,' says Banning, and again it's not clear if this is supposed to be funny or not.
Then again, as I mentioned up the page, London Has Fallen has serious tone issues throughout. There's nothing wrong with a crazed action movie sensibility, with one man crunching his way through legions of faceless goons and lengthy sequences resembling nothing so much as a shoot 'em up computer game, but I think that kind of disqualifies you from attempting to make serious points about contemporary geopolitics and the attendant ethical issues. This won't be the year's only film where drone strikes are a plot point, but hopefully it's the most messed-up one. The villains are, of course, pretty much presented as evil incarnate once they start bumping off world leaders and tearing down London, but you would have to be some kind of sociopath not to feel that they kind of have a point – the movie starts off with a wedding being bombed by the ostensible good guys, after all. The film concludes with another drone attack, and while it's probably supposed to be interpreted as the righteous vengeance of the good guys, I just got a queasy sense of an endless cycle of bitter violence gearing up for another iteration.
In short, any moral ambiguity in London Has Fallen is almost certainly not an intentional creative choice – the characters and dialogue are too gung-ho cartoony for that to be credible – but actually the result of artistic incompetence. I mean, the film is technically proficient, but that's meaningless as a piece of praise these days, it's like saying 'well, at least they remembered to turn the cameras on'. There's also a sense in which the film is actively disingenous – the bad guys are, we're repeatedly told, super-villain arms dealers, not motivated by any othe religious or ethical creed. Hmmm, yeah, but they're arms dealers with a middle-eastern surnames and complexions, much given to beheading prisoners on live internet feeds. You would have to be thicker even than this film's target demographic not to figure out what's really going on.
We live in a more dangerous world than was the case a few years ago – or at least that's how we perceive it, which may amount to much the same thing. Spectacular terror atrocities on the streets of western nations are not just the stuff of fantasy any more, and there are arguably worthwhile and interesting films to be made on this topic. But just making a bone-headed video-game style shooter with fantastically thin characters and no sense of moral compass or the actual issues involved isn't just crass, it's dangerous and insulting. It's just exploiting fear and feeding it, rather than trying to take any steps to improve the situation (unless you genuinely believe that blowing people up is the answer to every problem – funnily enough, the bad guys in this film would seem to agree with you).
At the end of the film, Gerard Butler's character cradles his new-born daughter and asks 'What are you going to be passionate about?' Well, jingoistic nonsense, human rights violations and stabbing people to death, if she's anything like her dad. I would have the mite taken into care forthwith. Whether the same measures would help Gerard Butler's film career, I don't know, but it's probably worth a try. This movie is horrible, and I've a nasty feeling that left to his own devices, Butler is only going to get worse.