Butler Did It (Again)
I know that some people have occasionally accused me of being unreasonably inflexible and rigid in my attitudes and principles. Well, maybe so; everyone's got to have their red lines, after all. But in my defence, I would like to offer proof that a man can change. For quite a long time in the early and middle 2000s I was a definite cheerleader for the career of Gerard Butler, always lamenting his poor film choices and bad luck and hoping he would rise to become a genuine leading man. However, for the last couple of years I have quietly been hoping he would pack it all in and slope off back to obscurity.
What changed? Well, when Butler actually became a star he ended up making films like Geostorm, Hunter Killer, and especially London Has Fallen, and frankly I can only take so much of that kind of thing (some of the personal grooming commercials he's been doing have been difficult to stomach as well). If it hadn't been for the current blight in interesting mainstream films I suspect I would have given his new one, Ric Roman Waugh's Angel Has Fallen, a very clear miss. But, you know – maybe I do have some residual affection for the lad.
The movie opens with moody scenes of men in combat gear, flames, and helicopters. They are clearly big manly men, carrying big gunly guns, but keeping well clear of the big flamey flames. (Sometimes a helicopter is just a helicopter.) It turns out this lot are all after heroic swivel-eyed psycho Mike Banning (GERARD! BUTLER!), only not really, as anyone with a switched-on brain will quickly realise. This fake man-hunt is just a device to allow the movie to open with some running around and shooting as well as foreshadowing what is to follow when the movie properly gets going (basically, more running around and shooting).
Well, with that out of the way, they have to lay in some plot, which involves Banning's old mate Jennings (Danny Huston), a mercenary who's feeling the pinch, and the decision of the President (Morgan Freeman) not to use private security firms to execute American foreign policy. There is also a plotline about Banning knocking on a bit, suffering from insomnia and concussion and a dodgy neck, and dreading the prospect of the desk job which is being floated before him. All this done, it's off to the races as someone unknown (but really very obvious) attempts to kill the President while he's fishing, using killer drones. This is one of the movie's big set pieces and it is certainly fairly impressive, although the fact that this is the third film this year alone to incorporate killer drones as a plot device inevitably lessens the impact. Everyone dies but Banning and the Prez (who is left in a coma), and evidence surfaces suggesting that Banning has been colluding with the Russians against the best interests of the American people. With the administration in turmoil and the threat of war looming (as usual, this is an abstract, off-screen sort of looming, an attempt to raise the stakes more than anything else), it's up to Banning to go on the run from the FBI in an attempt to clear his name and save the nation...
So: a few changes from the last ...Has Fallen movie, most visibly the disappearance of Aaron Eckhart as the President and the promotion of Morgan Freeman to the top job. You can understand why Eckhart must have found this a fairly unfulfilling gig, as all it involved was looking weak and needing to be rescued all the time, and Freeman got to make all the big speeches anyway. It is odd to realise this is only the second film where Morgan Freeman plays the US President, it feels like it's been a plank of his career for ages (even though the first time was in a film where basically half the world blew up, not the most reassuring track record). Banning's wife has also been recast, not that it matters very much.
Less visibly, but perhaps more importantly, this is a less ugly and offensive film than London Has Fallen, although it is still a very mechanical chase-thriller with lengthy action sequences undistinguished by any real flair or energy. It doesn't relish gratuitous sadism in the same way the previous film did, nor does it treat serious real-world issues in quite such an offensively glib manner. So it is on some level an improvement.
However, London Has Fallen was such a bad film that being better than it doesn't mean Angel Has Fallen is actually what you'd call a good one. It is, as noted, mechanical, and also quite predictable – it's crystal-clear right from the start that Danny Huston is going to turn out to be the bad guy, for instance. (Not quite entirely predictable, though: a couple of characters get the chop who you wouldn't necessarily expect.) Much of it is quite humourless, soundtracked primarily by Butler shouting profanities and grunting a lot.
On the other hand, when they do try to lighten up, the results are mixed at best. Banning attempts to go to ground with his estranged father, played by Nick Nolte. It turns out that Pops Banning is also a swivel-eyed psycho, but he is presented as the comic relief character: when he blows dozen of bad guys away or stabs them to death it is usually the set-up to a punchline of some description. (When Mrs Banning meets her father-in-law for the first time, the very first thing he does is knife two guys to death in her presence – and she still has doubts that he's related to her husband! Has she not been paying attention for the last two movies?) This also occasions an attempt at some added depth, as Pops Banning is another army veteran left traumatised by his experiences. Not that the film is really about this or attempts to deal with it in any depth. It just sort of prods the notion in an attempt to generate some pathos and then moves on to the next scene.
The movie is of course afflicted by the same problem that has troubled any recent attempt to portray goings on at the top end of the US government. In the past the answer has always been to create a sort of roman-a-clef effect, to some degree or other – so we had heroic, charming POTUSes in films during the Clinton years, Danny Glover and Jamie Foxx in the Oval Office during the Obama administration, and so on. But what are you supposed to do at the moment? Hire the Jim Henson Company? In the end the film parts company with reality entirely, which is kind of ironic as the current US administration did that quite some time ago.
You do actually get a sense of a film not quite hedging its bets completely in this area: if anything, this is a movie pitching to an old, white, male, blue-collar crowd, more likely than not to be wearing one of those red baseball caps with the cute slogan on it. Heroic Banning, after all, is framed for colluding with the Russians and wrongfully persecuted by the FBI as a result – although there is a passing reference to Russian tampering in US elections which someone has slipped in, in an attempt at balance. There is also a scene in which a defenceless African-American woman is shot in the face by a white middle-aged man, which I would imagining playing quite well with a certain constituency of the current president's base.
However, lest you come away with the impression that this is just empty carnage, questionable comic relief and dubious political subtext, I should mention that there is also a theme about the deep bond and fellow-feeling that exists between former brothers-in-arms Banning and Jennings. Truly they understand and care for each other, although this doesn't stop Jennings trying to frame his buddy or have his family kidnapped. The final tussle between them is thus an oddly affectionate one and even somewhat tender, as they grapple sweatily together, holding one another tightly and gasping for breath (both have been doing a lot of running, and Banning has just copped a grenade at point-blank range), before Banning brings things to a climax and slips it in (his dagger, I mean). 'I'm glad it was you!' whispers Danny Huston, before flopping down to bleed out in a pool of his own bodily fluids. You almost feel like you're intruding on them by watching this stuff.
Or possibly I'm reading too much into all of this. I suspect it is actually impossible to read too little into it, for this is ultimately formulaic entertainment, the hard lines of plot barely garnished by the odd moment purporting to bring character or depth to it. That said, Danny Huston is clearly having fun, and there's something about Morgan Freeman that can't help but bring a touch of class to whatever he does. The film also scores points for improving on London Has Fallen. But on the whole this is insignificant stuff. My advice to Gerard Butler now? Take the desk job, the next time they offer it.