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Review: Angel Has Fallen (2019)

Angel Has Fallen (2019) sees the return of Secret Service Agent Mike Banning (Gerard Butler) in the third installment of the Fallen franchise. The original, Antoine Fuqua’s Olympus Has Fallen (2013) was a big hit ($170 million box office on a $70 million budget), and I believe that success was a result of three things. First,it was a no-frills, brutal, R rated story that felt like something straight out of the ‘90s. Second, Gerard Butler played Banning as a tough and gruff, yet still likeable and relatable, character that felt like a second coming of Bruce Willis’s John McClane. Third, Fuqua directed some truly exciting and inspired action sequences, all grounded in reality, that felt refreshing compared to the typical CG infused action sequences in most summer blockbusters.

2016’s London Has Fallen used that same formula to become an even bigger hit, earning $205 million on a $60 million budget. Like most action sequels, the story was made bigger and better, but it kept the same gritty, old-school tone of the original, Gerard Butler was as badass as ever, and, despite the loss of Antoine Fuqua, Babak Najafi (Proud Mary) more than fills his director chair with some brilliantly filmed action sequences (including a one shot, long take shootout in the streets of London that was probably my favorite action scene of that year).

Now comes Angel Has Fallen and, again, we get a new director. This time, former stuntman turned writer/director Ric Roman Waugh is calling the shots. I’m glad to tell you that Angel has the same badass, grounded feel to it, and Gerard Butler is still fun as hell to watch. Unfortunately, most of the action sequences feel uninspired, and the movie suffers because of it.

In this one, Banning is in charge of protecting President Allan Trumbull (Morgan Freeman), who was Vice President to Asher in the previous installments of the franchise. While Trumbull is on a fishing trip, there is a drone attack. Every member of the security detail is killed and Banning gets knocked unconscious protecting the President from an explosion. He wakes up, handcuffed to a hospital bed, only to find out that he is being blamed for the assasination attempt. With President Trumbull in a coma, there is nobody to side with Banning, so he has no choice but to escape and clear his name, while thwarting further attempts on the President’s life.

The story was in good hands, as the director, Ric Roman Waugh, wrote it alongside fantastic action writers Matt Cook (Triple 9, The Duel, Patriots Day) and Robert Mark Kamen (The Fifth Element, The Transporter, Taken). I enjoyed many aspects, even though the idea of setting up the hero and forcing him to clear his name while saving the day is not a new one. Still, it’s a good premise when done right, and I enjoyed how it allowed the story to maintain the tone and high stakes of the previous movies, while allowing the story to develop Agent Banning further and explore his personal life much more.

I also enjoyed the new direction they took Mike Banning as a character. In the first two, Banning was a foul mouthed everyman, whose charm and ability to shit-talk the enemy made me think of John McClane. Despite that, he was still a mostly indestructible soldier who rarely seemed like he wouldn’t accomplish his mission. In that regard, he felt more like a Stallone or Schwarzenegger character. In Angel, Butler plays a more introspective and subdued version of Banning, which allows Butler to show off more of his dramatic chops.

Through his visits to a doctor we are shown the physical toll that his job and his age have taken on his body. We also see the mental toll that balancing his job and his family has taken, as he wrestles with the idea of taking a desk job. His family also helps in further developing his character. His wife, Leah (Piper Perabo replacing Radha Mitchel due to scheduling conflicts) has a bigger role in the movie than in the previous two, and the introduction of Mike’s father, Clay (Nick Nolte) allowed the writers to dig deeper into Mike’s past. While I did miss the more brusque, McClane-like aspects of the character, the writers made a point to try to humanize Banning and make him seem like more of a real person, and I appreciate that.

A deeper look at Banning's family relationships helps create a more personal connection to the character.

I do have a few gripes with the writing, however, and those are the “twists” and “reveals” of the movie. I won’t spoil anything here but, trust me, you will know who’s behind everything very early on. That in itself isn’t necessarily a bad thing. My issues, though, come from how those twists are unfolded and presented. Either the writers felt like the twists were more elaborate than they actually were, or they had no faith in the audience. Either way, it felt like they were trying to hold our hands and guide us through the movie and it was a little aggravating. I mean, it’s a pretty straightforward action movie story. How dumb do they think we are?

For the most part, all of the acting was pretty good. Butler was solid as always. There was more depth to his character than in the previous two and I think he did a good job bringing that to life. The change in actresses playing Leah Banning was a little off-putting at first, but Perabo won me over quickly as she did everything she could with the role. There was very little depth to Morgan Freeman’s character, but he brought his typical magnetism and dignity to the role to make President Trumbull easy to root for and even easier to like.

The surprise star of the movie, in my mind at least, was Nick Nolte as Mike’s father, Clay. He plays a damaged Vietnam vet who walked out on his family when Mike was young, and now lives a reclusive life in an isolated mountain cabin. The role is strange blend of oddball comedic relief and serious family drama and, truthfully, it’s a blend that shouldn’t have worked but did thanks to Nolte’s immense talents. Nolte’s name might not immediately come to mind when thinking of great actors, but he is a three time Oscar nominee and a five time Golden Globe nominee (with one win for The Prince of Tides (1991)). All one has to do to get an idea of his range is look at his most recent nominations. He was recognized for his dramatic abilities with his Academy Award nomination for Warrior in 2011 and for his comedic abilities with his Golden Globe nomination for Graves in 2016. Clearly he has the range to do almost anything asked, and he put that to work in Angel Has Fallen. The comedy that comes with his character injected some life in a movie that was quickly becoming dull, and his acting depth made his emotional moments with Mike very effective. Not many actors could have pulled off this performance like Nolte did, so kudos to him.

Nolte completely steals the movie as mike's father, Clay.

Unfortunately, the actors are let down a bit by the action sequences. Although the action feels pretty basic and uninspired, there is enough variety of action to keep the movie exciting. There is a drone attack, some vehicle chase scenes, a ton of massive explosions, and a great setup for a final shootout/final showdown in an evacuated hospital building. On top of that, the production value is very good in these scenes, despite this one having the smallest budget of the franchise. Most of the explosions are real, cars are smashed to bits (there’s even a very cool semi-truck crash), and the amount of blanks fired is unreal, particularly in the final hospital scene.

Despite the groundwork being there for great action, I wasn’t a fan of the direction and filming of the scenes and it really knocked this movie down a few notches. Waugh used a lot of close-up shots during the action and when combined with his shakey, handheld filming style, and the fast cut editing, the scenes become hard to watch. When the camera is constantly shaking and cutting from close-up to close-up, it’s it makes it difficult to make out the geography of the scene. Without being able to tell who is whom, and where everybody is in relation to each other, many of the firefights were reduced to a mess of images of people shooting guns and people falling down. It seemed like there was no cohesion to the scenes, and poor visual storytelling, which really took me out of the movie. As a result, the action wasn’t effectively tense or very thrilling, so it felt dull and lifeless, making it forgettable.

Overall, Angel Has Fallen is a mixed bag. Butler is a joy to watch as usual, and I enjoyed the effort to take the franchise in a new direction and to take a deeper dive into who Banning is as a person, but the action is underwhelming, and very easily the weakest in the franchise. It’s never a good sign when the slow dramatic scenes of a movie franchise built around action are more engaging than the action sequences. I only hope Gerard Butler gets one more opportunity to play Banning so he can go out on a higher note than this.

SCORE: 6/10 (C)

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