The year of our lord 2013 was a watershed Dante’s Peak/Volcano moment that saw the release of two thematically identical films: White House Down with Channing Tatum, and Olympus Has Fallen with Gerard Butler. I was more excited for White House Down because it seemed like the brasher concept (president Jamie Foxx!), but history spoke loudly and clearly, in favor of Olympus Has Fallen (probably on account of being R-rated, nobody wants their guilty pleasures watered down). White House Down was cast out and forgotten in favor of much better Channing Tatum movies, and Olympus Has Fallen went on to spawn two sequels: London Has Fallen, in 2016, and this week, Angel Has Fallen.
Even the titles of the previous two seem to connote a clarity of purpose that Angel Has Fallen lacks. “Olympus” was code for the White House. “London” is self-explanatory. What does “Angel” mean, exactly?
“Angel,” it turns out, is short for “Guardian Angel.” As in, secret service agent Mike Banning (Gerard Butler). Banning’s “guardian angel” has been framed for the attempted murder of President Allan Trumbull (Morgan Freeman). You’d think saving the lives of multiple heads of state would buy Banning the benefit of some doubts by now, but FBI Agent Jada Pinkett Smith is having none of it. When the president’s fishing trip (a boatercade, as I like to call it) is interrupted by exploding drones that look like evil paper airplanes, killing 18 faceless secret service agents, and putting the president into a coma, Mike Banning is the lone survivor. Now all signs point to Banning as the culprit.
Who framed him? Was it the Russians? The Deep State? A Blackwater-esque private army of mercenaries led by Danny Huston? Does anyone care? Probably not. Mostly I suspect we go to these movies to see Gerard Butler stab henchman in the skull and deliver gloriously uncomedic one-liners like “…fuck you.” Mostly the cleverest one-liner anyone can manage in a Fallen movie is “fuck you,” which is charming, in its way. Gerard Butler is most charismatic when he’s least clever.
Though all this makes the plot of Angel Has Fallen, in which Mike Banning has to rehabilitate his image and solve the crime rather than, you know, just kill a bunch of people, kind of a big ask. Not to mention he also has to rescue: his marriage, his relationship with his father, his job, and the country — from the Russians, from misplaced xenophobia over the Russians, from privatization, and from the military-industrial complex. Phew! Can’t we just stab some skulls?
Needless to say, movies based on the concept of “Inarticulate Meathead Saves The White House” do not benefit from intricate plots. Yet all of that could be forgiven if we could tell what the hell was going on. And I don’t mean in a macro, who are these bad guys and what do they want sense (though let’s be honest, it’d be nice); I mean in a much more basic, who is stabbing who and where did that punching sound come from sense. I don’t necessarily need to know why Gerard Butler is killing, but if I can’t see how I quickly stop caring.
It’s baffling when a former stunt coordinator like Ric Roman Waugh directs a movie where you can’t actually see any of the stunts. From the very beginning of Angel Is Fallen, the camera is far too close to everyone’s faces while the frame jiggles slightly and parts of it cycle in and out of focus as if the action is happening down on the field and we’re watching it from the nosebleed seats through a telescope. Is this an artistic choice or a logistical compromise? Either way, it sucks.
There’s a surprise cameo about two-thirds of the way into the movie that makes it briefly interesting, and a post-credits scene featuring said-cameo-actor-who-I’m-not-spoiling that offers a glimpse at what an alternate universe, crowd-pleasing version of Angel Has Fallen could’ve been. Mostly though, it’s hard to be too invested in jittery, inconclusive imagery, the action movie equivalent of watching scrambled porno. Not to mention that crunchy, high-speed film and super close-ups don’t mix well with a casting of aging actors. Everyone looks like hell. Though it seems like anyone would under these circumstances.
At one point, the guy sitting next to me at one point began to snore. I was jealous.