Mike Banning (Gerard Butler), the protagonist of the Has Fallen movies, isn’t just a Secret Service agent. He is the Secret Service agent, a neanderthal with veins of pure American cheese and a single-minded devotion to the bodily integrity of the president of these United States. In Olympus Has Fallen, a Die Hard clone that was inferior to White House Down in every respect except domestic box office performance, he saved the president from terrorists, and in the execrable London Has Fallen, he did it again. Now, in Angel Has Fallen, he must save himself. (While also saving the president.)
No one was clamoring for Banning to be humanized. But in Angel (which often feels like a bargain-bin Skyfall) we learn that he has a bad back, sleeping problems, serious daddy issues. He takes pills, but who knows for what. Not that any of the five writers credited on the film (three for the script, two for the story) would stoop so low as to suggest that any of this might be related to his penchant for violence. No, Banning’s cold-blooded sadism remains unalloyed by conscience or remorse; no matter the odds or the murky lighting, he is ready to kill to protect his commander-in-chief.
One might ask: Is it always the same president? Not anymore. Aaron Eckhart, who played President Benjamin Asher in the previous two movies with a considerable “Democratic primary loser” energy, has exited the series, and now Allan Trumbull (Morgan Freeman) is in the White House. Trumbull was the speaker of the house (and briefly, acting president) in Olympus and vice president in London. Here, one almost wants to sympathize with Banning. The guy has foiled two different assassination attempts, and by all logic should be some kind of instantly recognizable national hero, living off of speaking fees or royalties from a ghostwritten memoir. But it’s taken two movies and a change in administration for anyone to offer him a promotion. Maybe that’s why he’s always scowling.
But before Banning even has time to consider Trumbull’s offer of a cushy desk job, disaster strikes. On a fishing trip, Trumbull and his security detail are attacked by a fleet of explosive drones, leaving POTUS in a coma. Worse yet, Banning, the only other survivor of the attack, has been framed as its mastermind, complete with a bogus trail of offshore accounts that links him to the Kremlin. Of course, Banning being Banning, he soon escapes custody and goes on the warpath to clear his name, pursued by a couple of FBI agents (Jada Pinkett Smith, Joseph Millson) with impeccable salon hair and a large crew of fungible mercenary assassins led by his former Army buddy Wade Jennings (Danny Huston). Meanwhile, Trumbull’s spineless veep, Martin Kirby (Tim Blake Nelson), is calling for war with Russia, overstepping his temporary elevation to the highest office on the grounds that no one who has been sworn in as acting president has ever been unsworn. (Not only is this untrue in the real world, it already happened in Olympus Has Fallen.)
This actually qualifies as the least ludicrous plot in the series, though it goes without saying that any movie that involves fictional American presidents in high-stakes peril is basically asking for ridicule—especially in these times, given that Hollywood, for all of its perceived political bias, has spent the last couple of years avoiding overt engagements with the Trump presidency. Angel even goes so far as to try to backtrack on London’s xenophobia, more or less pretending that the earlier film never happened. (Which is funny, because the only reason this movie exists is because that one made money.) If London’s politics were numbskull fear, this one’s are more in line with typically tepid liberal pussyfooting around hot-button issues, referencing contested election results and the possibility that the American populace might just be too well-armed for its own good, but never in a way that might hurt ticket sales from the presumed fanbase of Butler’s sub-Tom Clancy thriller-fantasies.
From Banning’s escape on, the film unfolds as a predictable series of chases and shoot-outs, as our two-fisted hero eventually makes his way to the secluded West Virginia cabin of his estranged father, Clay Banning (Nick Nolte), a Vietnam veteran turned conspiracy nut. Not that the film ever figures out what to do with Banning’s relationship with his dad or the potential mirror-image Wade or even his wife, Leah (Piper Perabo, replacing Radha Mitchell, who played this completely thankless role in the previous two films). While Angel’s director, Ric Roman Waugh (Snitch, Shot Caller), represents a definite step up from London’s incompetent Babak Najafi, he directs every dialogue scene the same way: quick cuts between close-ups of whoever’s doing the talking.
Waugh fares better with the action scenes, which trade London’s wanton stabbing for a surplus of ’80s-style pyrotechnic explosions. (Not a bad thing.) But while Angel offers up a few potentially memorable set pieces—a chase involving police cars and a stolen semi, an attack on Clay’s cabin that leads the old coot to set off an inferno of booby traps, and, finally, a climactic firefight in an all-white multi-story business center lobby straight out of a Michael Mann movie—they all fall victim to having too much repetitive editing and not enough kinetic energy, a problem that no amount of onscreen firepower, twisted wreckage, or offbeat overhead camera angles can solve. However, given the awfulness of its predecessor, which was this publication’s pick for the worst film of 2016, a sequel that’s merely pedestrian represents a dramatic improvement.