Back in 2013, we saw the White House go under siege in not one, but two movies about kidnapping the president. Olympus Has Fallen was the more violent one. Directed by Training Day’s Antoine Fuqua, it was a silly action movie that played like a well made 1980’s throwback. The film’s sequel, London Has Fallen, ratchets up the stakes, asking: what if, instead of a building, terrorists held an entire city hostage? And what if, instead of trying to kill the President, the terrorists were trying to kill all the world leaders of the West (but mostly the President)? And what if it were still up to Gerard Butler to save the day? The answer, of course, is that it would be a stupid movie. Which is what we get.
After the British Prime Minister dies unexpectedly, the world’s leaders fly in to attend his funeral, among them is President Asher (Aaron Eckhart, The Dark Knight) and his favorite Secret Service buddy Mike Banning (Gerard Butler, 300). The funeral turns out to be a deadly trap set by an international group of terrorists lead by arms dealer Aamir Barkawi (Alon Aboutboul, The Dark Knight Rises) as retribution for a drone strike that killed Barkawi’s daughter on her wedding day. As things go from bad to worse, it’s up to Banning to singlehandedly get the president out of London as the city turns into a war zone.
London Has Fallen feels a like an old script intended for Arnold Schwarzenegger that got kicked under the sofa for two decades and was recently rediscovered. It actually contains the line “Get to the chopper.” Its plot is so potently silly and politically tone deaf, it’s hard to believe it took four screenwriters to write it. Scribes of the original, Creighton Rothenberger and Katrin Benedikt are joined by Christina Gudegast (Man Apart) and first-time writer Chad St. John. They bring with them little more than a can-do attitude, a love of explosions, and a 12-year-old’s understanding of geopolitics. There’s an almost admirable naiveté to the world of London Has Fallen. So many impossible things need to happen for its plot to be possible- the film is basically science fiction. All of this would be fine, but the film insists that its infantile baby-games have real dramatic heft, which leaves the film feeling less fun and more delusional.
But people don’t go to see a movie like London Has Fallen for the plot, they go for the action. Unfortunately the film stumbles a bit here. Olympus Has Fallen was made for a relatively small $70 million, and with a confined scope, it made the most of that money. London Has Fallen sees a modest bump in its budget, but its not enough to blow up half of London. Director Babak Najafi (Easy Money II: Hard to Kill) has an appetite for C4 and shockwaves, but he’s trying to make Beef Wellington on a Big Mac budget. Consequently the first third of the film looks like a videogame cut scene from 2010 than a harrowing terrorist attack. The back half sees Banning and Asher take to the streets and subways, and the film benefits from the kind of close-up combat that made the first film effective.
The performances are expectedly stilted. The original film’s attack on the White House benefited from a ‘this is my house’ patriotic bravado that’s missing here, robbing Gerard Butler of much of the charisma that made his performance in the original so much fun. Eckhart is more of a presidential McGuffin than a real character. He tries admirably to find some depth to his character, but you’d have better luck squeezing water out of a stone. Morgan Freeman returns as Trumbull, gladly regurgitating C-grade dialog for what was, I’m sure a substantial payday. There are some new characters too, notably Charlotte Riley (Edge of Tomorrow) as Jacquelin Marshall, an MI6 badass who deserves a movie that gives her more than five minutes of screen time.
London Has Fallen looks about the way you’d expect it to look. Cinematography by Ed Wild (Welcome to the Punch) and editing by Michael J. Duthie (Stargate) and Paul Martin Smith (Star Wars: Episode I) are both middle of the road. They struggle in quieter, conversational scenes, often trying to hide the fact that the actors weren’t in the room together, but excel at the action, creating one particularly tense scene shot impressively to look like one take. Unfortunately, Najafi doesn’t have Fuqua’s talent for elevating mediocre material, making much of the talent cast and crews time feeling wasted.
Verdict: 2 out of 5
Even following a solidly mediocre film like Olympus Has Fallen, its hard not to be disappointed in this sequel. A few brief moments of visceral throwback action aren’t enough to buoy this sinking ship. Mike Banning has turned from underdog badass to a full-fledged superhero. There might be hundreds of terrorists trying to kill him, but you never feel like he’s in any danger. And without feeling that danger, its hard for the film to maintain any tension, especially since its so uncertain about how much fun it wants to be having. Its grasp of politics is painfully shallow; eschewing subtlety for a ‘any problem caused by a drone strike can be solved by a drone strike’ attitude. If there’s one improvement London Has Fallen has over its predecessor, it is a tight 100 minutes. It might be a profoundly dumb movies, but at least it’s not a long one.