Scalding Hot Takes: Angel Has Fallen
I don’t like to brag, but over the course of the last fifteen years I have gotten extremely good at avoiding the movies of Gerard Butler. I suppose you could call it a gift. Or a talent. Or a valuable skill I have cultivated over time. If you’re feeling really indulgent you might even refer to it as a superpower. A very shitty, low-level superpower.
But really, I’m just a guy who sat in a packed, ecstatic and extremely rowdy preview screening of 300 many years back and thought to himself, “This movie fucking sucks; its politics, populism, racism and inevitable massive popularity all seem to anticipate a renewed age of Fascism within the American populace and also the beefy head naked guy does nothing for me either. Fuck this movie and fuck that guy.”
Sure enough, 300 was a massive sleeper hit that did, in fact, anticipate our nation’s horrifying lurch towards fascism, xenophobia and vitriolic racism. Zack Snyder’s Frank Miller adaptation helped turn Gerard Butler into a prolific movie star whose vehicles I have had absolutely no trouble resisting.
Butler rose to fame as a beefy, two-fisted Mel Gibson type. I really do not care for the actual Mel Gibson so the idea of a knock-off who was less problematic but also lacked Gibson’s charisma, magnetism and resume of great, iconic films has always struck me as singularly unappealing.
It helps, of course, that pretty much none of the movies Butler made post-300 have reputations for being any damn good at all, let alone unmissable. The painfully generic, interchangeable titles tell the story. Shattered. Gamer. Law Abiding Citizen. Machine Gun Preacher. Olympus Has Fallen. London Has Fallen. Geostorm. Hunter Killer. Den of Thieves.
The only movies on Butler’s singularly dire filmography that look less promising than his thrillers and action movies are his romantic comedies. The dire reputations of Butler’s rancid romantic comedy trilogy The Ugly Truth, Playing For Keeps and The Bounty Hunter suggests that the only thing worse than a Gerard Butler movie where he murders the bad guys is a Butler vehicle where he romances the ladies.
I unsurprisingly managed to skip, with a vengeance, the first two entries in what is now officially the Olympus Has Fallen trilogy. I’m a newcomer not just to this trilogy but to Butler as a movie star and I gotta say: I was impressed by his willingness, even eagerness to look like a broken down piece of shit in the surprisingly not-terrible second sequel to the lesser of the two big presidential thrillers of 2013, after the delightful White House Down.
Butler has compared Angel Has Fallen to Logan. Angel Has Fallen isn’t on the same evolutionary plane as James Mangold’s revered comic book noir but the mere fact that a movie this dire-looking has those kinds of ambitions sets it apart.
Angel Has Fallen has several things going for it. From everything I’ve read and heard, that gives it officially several more things in its favor than either of the dire thrillers that preceded it. As the Logan comparison suggests, Angel Has Fallen is one of those melancholy, hard-edged action melodramas about a warrior in winter whose body and mind are both in the process of breaking down.
That consequently makes Angel a movie fundamentally concerned with aging and decay, mortality and the looming, terrifying prospect of professional and personal obsolescence. That doesn’t make Angel art, or Unforgiven, but it does give it surprising substance.
At this stage in his career, the nearly fifty year old Butler has that Mel Gibson craggy alcoholic bloat, the craggy, weathered appearance of someone who has lived hard for a very long time and has the physical and psychological scars to prove it.
To help Butler’s Mike Banning deal with the ravages of age and encroaching mortality he pops painkillers. He’s fighting a losing battle with time and age but, on a more literal and deadly level, also the evil minions of Salient Global, a Blackwater-like private defense contractor run by Wade Jennings (Danny Huston), a friend turned enemy working for a traitor entrenched in the corridors of power.
On a fishing trip protecting kindly, paternalistic President Allan Trumbull (Morgan Freeman, taking it easy even when his character isn’t in a coma), Mike watches in abject horror as a killer cloud of armed drones descends upon the Commander-in-Chief and his security detail, bringing death from above.
The drone attack is unrelenting and unstoppable, a flock of killer metallic birds spraying bullets in every direction, ripping apart the flesh of the dozens of secret service agents tasked with protecting the President. The drone attack on the President and all of his secret service agent is a legitimately badass set-piece: tense, exciting, brutal, uncompromising and something I feel like I’ve never seen before. It’s an unforgettable sequence in a movie I will have a hard time remembering next month.
The assault kills every single member of the secret service detail and leaves Mike in a coma. That’s when his problems really begin. FBI agent Helen Thompson, (Jada Pinkett Smith, channelling Tommy Lee Jones in The Fugitive) thinks Mike was behind the attack on his coworkers and his boss, that he helped facilitate the bloodbath at the behest of sinister Soviet masters.
Mike is framed for the massacre and arrested but escapes from custody and seeks out his father Clay (Nick Nolte), a decorated Vietnam veteran turned Unabomber-like recluse and crank .
I went into Angel Has Fallen knowing nothing about it except that it was a second sequel to a movie no one seemed to like. I went in so blind that I honestly assumed that the title referred to this movie taking place in Los Angeles. I was wrong. It refers to its protagonist being a guardian “angel” to the President who has ostensibly fallen and betrayed his country for cash.
I sure as shit did not expect Nick Nolte to be in the movie, although considering that previous installments in the trilogy featured Aaron Eckhart, Robert Forster, Radha Mitchell, Mellissa Leo, Jackie Earle Haley and Ashley Judd, none of whom return here, I probably should not have been that surprised by his presence.
If the Transformers movies routinely snag supporting casts that prestigious, why shouldn’t the second sequel to Olympus Has Fallen? The presence of a heavyweight thespian and People magazine’s 1992 choice for Sexiest Man Alive instantly and dramatically elevates the film. Angel Has Fallen is never more fun than when Nolte and Butler are on the run, taking on the world with Home Alone-by-way-of-Waco traps and explosives.
As a mismatched buddy action-comedy Angel Has Fallen is inspired; as a rote action vehicle for Butler it’s less distinguished. In its third act the movie becomes what I had feared it would be: a tepid rehash that finds Butler once again risking his life to protect the President of the United States after Freeman’s twinkly-eyed head of state awakens from his coma just in time to realize that Mike has been framed and that he’s quite possibly the only person who can protect him from the very real danger he still faces from the forces that tried to kill him the first time around.
Angel Has Fallen benefitted from me going into it with no expectations. I was pleasantly surprised and moderately engaged but this is nevertheless still not anything anyone should pay money to see unless they’re a dad. Dads will definitely be willing to pay good money to see an airport paperback of a motion picture.
Angel Has Fallen should be consumed exclusively by captive audiences on on airplanes—the higher the altitude, the lower the standards!—or by hungover people on cable on rainy, overcast afternoons. It’s a real hangover movie, a movie that asks nothing of its audience and over-delivers.
Angel Has Fallen is fine! It’s perfectly fine but it’s certainly nothing anybody needs to rush out and see. Though Butler is perfectly acceptable as a soldier whose best days are behind him I think I will go back to avoiding his movies. My “no Gerard Butler” policy has served me well in the past. I imagine it will serve me well in the future as well.
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