“Go back to Fuckheadistan,” growls Neanderthal Secret Service agent Mike Banning (Gerard Butler) as he knifes a faceless goon about halfway through the grab bag of dog-whistles and dog-shit filmmaking that is London Has Fallen. One of the cheapest looking $100 million movies ever made, this sequel to the 2013 sort-of-hit Olympus Has Fallen ditches the original’s “Die Hard in the White House” premise in favor of sub-Death Wish 3 sadism and Red Dawn-esque survivalism, but without the notes of camp or jingoist pulp that could make either watchable. Instead, Swedish director Babak Najafi (Easy Money: Hard To Kill) has thrown together one of the worst action movies in recent memory, its signal achievement being a firefight that’s presented in a single take, but which still manages to be incomprehensible. Perhaps the movie’s politics—which range from tone deaf to irredeemable—would be more of an issue if it weren’t so inept.
London Has Fallen finds Banning and his best bro, President Benjamin Asher (Aaron Eckhart), flying out to the British capital for a state funeral, soon revealed to be a set-up for a very poorly explained terrorist invasion. Indeterminably Arab evildoers appear to have infiltrated London’s police and emergency services in order to kill world leaders in ludicrous ways, like blowing up Westminster Abbey while the Italian prime minister is sightseeing or trying to shoot Marine One out of the air with a rocket launcher. (This may sound like the stuff of an over-the-top action movie, but London Has Fallen has a way of turning gonzo set pieces into listless patience-testers.) The bad guys’ motive: To avenge bystanders killed by a drone strike. At this point, the reader is invited to take some time to fully take in this dumpster of xenophobia, in which the bugaboo of immigrants “taking” jobs is explicitly conflated with terrorism, and brown people are scary enough to turn humanitarian issues into threats to international safety.
Najafi is himself a former refugee from the Middle East—a fact that might qualify as a fascinating contradiction if anything about the movie suggested awareness, self- or otherwise. A murky, brain-dead stab-a-thon packed with so many inane chases, laughable special effects, and mismatched stock footage shots that it begs to be made into a drinking game, London Has Fallen is one of those rare films that is good at absolutely nothing. Its aesthetic is cut-rate anonymity of the kind sometimes associated with direct-to-video movies (it was partly shot in Sofia, which is the capital of both Bulgaria and the low-budget action industry) and crappy TV. The Oval Office looks like a business tycoon’s mansion in a soap opera, and every shot of a building exterior or rushing ambulance appears to have been bought from Getty or Shutterstock. The surreal side effect of the wall-to-wall use of licensed stock footage—much of it featuring passersby—is that it makes it seem as though no one cares that half of London’s landmarks have been blown up and all of Europe’s heads of state are dead.
While our intrepid heroes head down a succession of dim corridors and narrow streets, the movie periodically cuts to overqualified supporting actors—including Morgan Freeman, Melissa Leo, and Robert Forster—so they can stare at a screen and say the plot out loud. (As it turns out, it’s possible to write something that will sound like garbage even when spoken in Freeman’s sonorous voice.) It’s difficult to imagine that even an ideal audience—i.e., people who harbor fantasies of being best friends with a president who’s willing to kick some ass, and also believe that today’s action movies don’t feature enough knife fighting—would find much to get excited about in London Has Fallen. For a movie that is so fixated on letting Banning inflict pain on the enemies of the West, it’s surprisingly squeamish about gore, qualifying for an R rating only on account of a few too many stilted fucks.
What viewers get instead is an ersatz approximation of a violent power fantasy: Banning glowering uncontrollably as masked thugs of implied Middle Eastern origin lunge at him and are killed just out of frame, leading President Asher to yelp out some variation on “Jesus, Mike! Did you have to kill that guy?” before being reminded that yes, he did. And so they trudge on, indifferently framed by Najafi’s camera, which serves only to prove that a truly bad director doesn’t need shaky handheld or rapid cuts to make incoherent action.