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Rare is the action-movie franchise that finds a way to improve by its third installment, and yet, Ric Roman Waugh’s bare-bones Angel Has Fallen ends up being the best chapter in all the Gerard Butler-led bunch. Color me shocked.
Part of this lies in the fact that the previous two installments in this explosive trilogy – the series-launching Olympus Has Fallen and its ludicrous sequel, London Has Fallen – weren’t very good. In fact, had you asked me which “White House In Peril” picture released in 2013 would still be telling its story today, I’d have bet big money on Roland Emmerich’s White House Down (if only because Channing Tatum and Jamie Foxx seemed like better box office bets over Butler).
Yet, here we are, still following the heroic exploits of Presidential bodyguard Mike Banning, a burly concoction of Kiefer Sutherland’s Jack Bauer, Bruce Willis’ John McClane and Clint Eastwood’s Frank Horrigan from In The Line of Fire. Banning’s a throwback on-screen hero, which is why it works that director Ric Roman Waugh has constructed a throwback action thriller around him, relying on practical stunts, tangible explosions, smaller-scale fights and good-old-fashioned car chases to make Angel Has Fallen the most credible and enjoyable film in the series to date.
Mike Banning actually spends all of Angel lamenting his broken-down body. He never actually speaks the words, “I’m too old for this shit,” but he embodies the classic Lethal Weapon line in every frame of this film. His vulnerability is a welcome trait. Banning has been through the ringer protecting first The White House and, later, the entirety of London, so he’s contemplating hanging up his detail.
Those plans are cast aside when a new antagonist makes a high-tech attack on new world leader, President Allan Trumbull (Morgan Freeman), somehow framing Banning for the threat.
That’s one of the most preposterous plot turns in Angel Has Fallen, and poor Jada Pinkett Smith has to somehow sell the tough talk that anyone in the administration would doubt Banning’s loyalty after the previous two films, or think he’d have a legitimate reason to want to eliminate Trumbull. Yet, without that line of bull, there’d be no story, thereby, no sequel.
The “twist” sends Mike Banning, two-time world saver, on the lam, where he must out the true criminal element and prove his innocence, all while still fulfilling his moral duty to keep the President alive. Piper Perabo lends support via telephone calls as Mike’s wife, Leah, while Nick freaking Nolte joins the fray in a welcome supporting part as Mike’s off-the-grid father.
But this is Butler’s show, and he makes the most of the opportunity. I return to the point of Mike’s vulnerability, an action-hero trope that has gone the way of the “practical stunt” in this current era of Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson holding a helicopter in place with one arm as he poses in front of a green screen. (See Hobbs & Shaw for that visual. Or, you know, don’t.)
Angel Has Fallen proudly honors older-school traditions, with fender-bending car wrecks, pyrotechnic explosions that practically throw heat off the screen, and fist fights that make you wince in your seat.
This plausibility was missing from the first two movies, where Butler’s Banning was an Energizer bunny, virtually impossible to stop. Ric Roman Waugh and his screenwriters wisely understand that once an action hero Has Fallen, it’s far more interesting when they struggle to get up, and that realization makes Angel a better-than-expected sequel.