No, you don’t need to have seen “Olympus Has Fallen” and/or “London Has Fallen” to understand the eminently disposable third chapter of the Mike Banning chronicles. It’s not that complicated: Gerard Butler is an elite Secret Service agent with a heart of gold and a face of raw meat, he’s saved the free world a couple of times over the last few years, and he’s forced to do it again. On the contrary, the only prerequisite for enjoying “Angel Has Fallen” — or at least for appreciating the essence of its potential appeal — is a fond nostalgia for old-school action movies.
You know, the steroidal stuff that Hollywood churned out back when men were men, explosions were the only special effects that mattered, and the President of the United States going into a coma wasn’t the best thing that could possibly happen to national security. Even in its best moments, the latest episode of Butler’s low-rent franchise is nothing more than a feeble attempt to refurbish 20th-century shoot-em-ups with 21st-century anxieties. With some actual craft, a pinch more personality, and even a single moment that didn’t feel like it was watered down from 100 better movies, “Angel Has Fallen” might have felt like a fond homage to a bygone era of blockbuster spectacle. Instead, it brings a mediocre series to a fittingly mediocre close, and sends the summer movie season running away with its tail between its legs.
Butler, who seems almost deathly afraid of deviating from his archetype, reprises his iconic role as Agent Banning, a character defined by two things above all: His born-and-raised Americanness, and a barely concealed Scottish brogue. But Mike, like the genre his movie belongs to, is getting a bit long in the tooth. After surviving the uselessly shaky action sequence that opens “Angel Has Fallen” — a shoot-out revealed to be part of a training exercise operated by cash-strapped private military contractor Wade Jennings (a cigar-chomping Danny Huston) — Mike immediately retires to his SUV to pop a bunch of pain pills. Being an all-American alpha male is hard work, and those concussions and body blows are starting to add up.
Mike’s wife (the ever-reliable Piper Perabo, seamlessly replacing Radha Mitchell) is pushing him to holster his gun and accept a desk job running his department, but our hero is hesitant to leave the field. He still wants to feel like a man! And real men don’t take high-paying administrative gigs so they can live to see their ridiculously adorable baby daughters grow up! Real men have so many spinal-cord injuries that they’re one big sneeze away from being paralyzed for life! Wade refers to he and Mike as “lions.” For these guys, it’s not about patriotism or justice so much as it is about pride.
Pride is in short supply for Mike, especially after the president he’s sworn to protect is nearly killed in a drone strike during a fishing trip. Played by Morgan Freeman, who’s really stretching his wings with this role, President Allan Trumbull is one of only two people to survive the attack of face-recognizing kamikaze robots; Mike is the other, and he’s framed for the crime. Not only that, he’s accused of colluding with the Russians to do it. Timely! With a war brewing, Trumbull in a coma, and his guardian angel busy eluding a nationwide manhunt, the Vice President (Tim Blake Nelson) has no choice but to enlist the pricey services of private mercenary groups. Who might stand to benefit from that?
One of the best things that can be said about “Angel Has Fallen” is that it doesn’t even try to pretend that Wade isn’t the villain; anyone who’s seen a movie in the last 20 years already knows that Danny Huston is always the bad guy. It’s a credit to screenwriters Robert Mark Kamen, Matt Cook, and director Ric Roman Waugh (“Snitch”) that they barely wait until the end of the first act for the big reveal. Any longer, and it would have been insulting. And while Wade isn’t the only villain, the fact that Waugh always disguises the other bad guy’s voice means that it probably has to be Vice President Kirby, Secret Service Director David Gentry (Lance Reddick in a suit), FBI Agent Helen Thompson (Jada Pinkett Smith in a beanie), another member of Trumbull’s staff, or Mike’s two-year-old daughter, whose cuteness cannot be overstated. She cries on command, and screams with visceral panic when some of Wade’s men break into the Banning house. It’s the best performance in the movie.
Or at least it would have been, if not for Nick Nolte as Clay Banning, Mike’s estranged father. Until Clay shows up in the second act, “Angel Has Fallen” is just a direct-to-video ripoff of “The Fugitive” that’s clumsily punctuated with references to modern politics and digital era buzzwords. President Trumbull frets about leakers and the lack of trust in today’s world. Vice President Kirby boasts about “Making America Strong Again.” FBI Agent Thompson demands that Mike tell her “about the encrypted file we found on the dark web” (a gorgeous clunker of a line in a movie that’s full of absolute beauties). The drone attack is tinged with a frightening dispassion, but the rest of the action scenes — including Mike’s escape from custody, and the climactic shootout in a hospital atrium — range from dull to unintelligible. Often, they’re both of those things at once as Waugh constructs the car crashes and firefights with no sense of build or rhythm.
But when Mike runs into the West Virginia woods (effortlessly portrayed by the Bulgarian countryside) and turns to his survivalist dad for shelter, we’re offered a temporary reprieve from the bargain-bin inanity. Nolte’s grizzled performance, which seems equally indebted to the Unabomber and the bear from “The Revenant,” is just the kind of left-field genius that can save a bad film from itself, at least for a little while.
This isn’t the first time that someone has tapped into the comedic potential of undead Nolte, but Waugh scores points for letting the actor take center stage, and for encouraging him to have a grand ol’ time going ham on the henchmen that try to kill his character’s son. “Angel Has Fallen” is the kind of movie that leaves you feeling restless and thinking about dinner long before the third act, but anyone who sticks it out until the bitter end will be rewarded with one of the greatest mid-credits sequences ever devised. Marvel should be quaking in its boots. Not because this steaming, $80 million ash heap of retro mediocrity is a threat to the company’s reign, but rather because the MCU will never be able to compete with the kicker that Butler’s trilogy serves up here.
Lionsgate will release “Angel Has Fallen” in theaters on August 23.