In an age where the family-friendly action blockbuster is in its prime, we should be grateful to have adult-oriented efforts like the Fallen movies. For one thing, these films allow for more explicit and cathartic violence. However, they also function as a refreshing throwback to old-school genre movies. With the Fallen franchise’s first two entries, 2013’s Olympus Has Fallen and 2016’s London Has Fallen, they evoked the “one man vs the outsiders” premise that embodies 1980s action movies like Die Hard. With the third and latest entry, 2019’s Angel Has Fallen, it aims to replicate one more premise: the wrong-man thriller that became prominent in the 1990s thanks to movies like The Fugitive. In fact, the word “fugitive” is part of the film’s tagline!
At the same time, it is difficult to actually be grateful for the Fallen series. How can people be when each entry has been far more disappointing than not? By replicating the tropes of old-school genre movies, they also happen to carry one of its most unpleasant elements: xenophobia. This was most apparent in London, in which Secret Service Agent Mike Banning (Gerard Butler) loudly taunts the non-American antagonist to “go back to F***headistan or wherever it is [they’re] from”. As for Olympus, that one carries such a jingoistic attitude towards the United States to the point of alienating nearly all other demographics.
With that comes one bit of good news: Angel Has Fallen is far less racist than either of its predecessors. For the first time in the series, Mike does not have to fight a foreign entity to save the day. Given the narrative at hand, going into detail about who exactly is the antagonist would delve into spoiler territory. Still, it takes only a few minutes to reveal that Mike’s newest opponent is within some familiarity. As such, the literal flag-waving in Olympus and the mockery towards foreign countries in London is nowhere to be found. From these changes alone, Angel justifies itself as the most politically correct film of the bunch.
If only political correctness were the sole barometer used to evaluate a film’s quality. Because once you look past its change in worldview, it is clear that Angel Has Fallen has little else to offer. It is bad enough that it goes through the plot beats of a conspiracy thriller in the most tiresome way. However, it is more unfortunate that in removing Olympus and London‘s unpleasant personality, we now have a movie that has virtually no personality. Sure, it still centers around the hard-edged Mike as he disposes of bad guys in increasingly gruesome ways. But the screenplay by Robert Mark Kamen, Matt Cook, and director Ric Roman Waugh rarely gives him the machismo one-liners that helped define who he was in the earlier movies.
It does not take long for the film’s inability to craft compelling drama to dominate every facet of the screenplay. Chief among them are the lame attempts to humanize Mike as an average middle-class man. On top of Butler himself struggling when the script requires him to be emotionally open, the screenwriters take the laziest route possible by giving him a family of his own. Every scene with him and his family gives so little insight towards what makes him tick as a person. Additionally, it does not help that it forces decent actors like Piper Perabo in thankless roles. Worst of all, though, is how Waugh exploits the wide-eyed innocence of the daughter just the sake of cheap sentimentality.
In addition, there is the boilerplate conspiracy at hand: is Mike responsible for killing the majority of Secret Service members? If that was not enough, the public now blames him for putting President Allan Trumbull (Morgan Freeman) in a coma. If more disciplined filmmakers were attached to this project, then it would be difficult to detect who is actually responsible for the attack until the end. But Waugh and the screenwriters do not have this kind of discipline whatsoever. They introduce certain characters in such an affable way that they have to sway towards one-note villainy at some point. Ignoring the fact that the actors in question have played baddies on a regular basis, the movie does not even try to frame these people in a positive light, figuratively and literally.
These drawbacks would be easy to forgive if the action sequences were at least exciting. Sadly, Angel Has Fallen quite literally does not put up a good fight in this regard. At best, we have a climactic mall shootout whose biggest appeal comes from a creative reveal of the scene’s geography. Furthermore, this is the one set piece that is elaborately staged and well-lit. As it turns out, this is more than what you could say for everything preceding it. For whatever reason that seemed good to Waugh, many of the action scenes take place in the dark. Given that the scenes involve major vehicle and human stunts, the darkness simply robs whatever impact they could have had. In particular, one nighttime truck chase becomes so hard to see that you almost have to rely on the sound mix to register that it ends with a vehicle crash.
What makes this frustrating is that midway through its 121-minute runtime, it actually does add a fresh element to the series. New to the Fallen franchise is Mike’s father, Clay (Nick Nolte). He is a war veteran that has experienced traumatic events like his son. The difference between the two is that Clay has never recovered from those days gone by. To the film’s detriment, his impact on the story is relatively minor. Additionally, it is a shame that his presence fades away as the movie reaches its climax. Still, he brings in a gruff but easy-going personality that makes his scenes the tiniest bit of fun. While there is nothing about Clay that forces Nolte to stretch his acting muscles, watching him as a grumpy old man never stops being entertaining.
It is unfair to say that Angel Has Fallen is the work of people that are incompetent at their jobs. As far as recent Fugitive knock-offs go, it is nowhere near as stylistically repulsive as 2015’s Taken 3. Moreover, in the realm of the Fallen series, London reigns supreme when it comes to embarrassing visual effects. The real issue here is that these people simply did not care enough to deliver anything other than pure hackwork. As a result, the movie comes off more like a soulless factory for action scenes than anything else. To put it bluntly, you would be doing yourself a disservice if you decided to invest your intellect and emotions on this empty shell of a movie.
Angel Has Fallen is now available in theaters.
The film stars Gerard Butler, Morgan Freeman, Danny Huston, Nick Nolte, Jada Pinkett Smith, Piper Perabo, and Lance Reddick.