Olympus Has Fallen was a 2013 “Die Hard in the White House” shoot-em-up that I gave a mildly positive review. It was a pretty good popcorn flick, with well-staged action by director Antoine Fuqua. But it also had a dark underbelly: in one scene, Secret Service agent Mike Banning (Gerard Butler) tortured and killed two Korean henchmen to gain information, and Olympus Has Fallen presented the moment without a hint of self-doubt or reflection. Indeed, Fuqua and his fellow filmmakers seemed to take it for granted that Banning’s actions showed principled masculine virility.
That film’s sequel, London Has Fallen, just arrived in theaters, and drops Banning and President Benjamin Asher (Aaron Eckhart) into the middle of a terrorist assault on the British capital. Rather than “pretty good,” it’s merely middling, and it doubles down on the worst moral instincts of that one torture scene. It’s an unrepentantly jingoistic romp, confidently asserting that American actions are never in the wrong, however repulsive.
When the Prime Minister of Great Britain unexpectedly dies from surgery complications (you are awarded no points for guessing something more sinister is at play), the funeral brings many heads of state to London. Banning and his boss, Jacobs (Angela Bassett) are unhappy about the limited time to plan the President’s security detail, but it’s not as if they cannot attend. The sudden trip also takes Banning away from his wife (Radha Mitchell), who is two weeks away from giving birth.
So off the characters go to London, where they find themselves besieged by a small army of terrorists who seem to have infiltrated the city’s police force en masse. They’ve also achieved godlike powers over the internet and the city’s infrastructure, and set up enough bombs to make the Joker in The Dark Knight feel woefully inadequate. The attack kills the heads of state for most major western powers, decimates most of London’s major landmarks, and strands Banning and Asher alone in the middle of the city. A cat and mouse game ensues as they try to make their way back to safety, with the help of MI6 agent Jacquelin Marshall (Charlotte Riley). Meanwhile, the heads of Scotland Yard (Colin Salmon) and MI5 (Patrick Kennedy) try to contain the damage, and the President’s White House Team – headed up by Vice President Trumbull (Morgan Freeman) – offer what help they can on their end.
Director Babak Najaf, a relative newcomer, handles the car chases, missile launches, explosions, and gun fights competently enough. But his only real creative flourish is a late scene when Banning storms the terrorists’ downtown stronghold along with some British troops, all in one long handheld take that lasts several minutes. And even that is only somewhat interesting.
More notable are the special effects, which have a dirty, rough-draft feel to them, as if the graphics artists didn’t have time to render everything in full detail. I didn’t mind – it gave the movie a certain humble charm – but it was slightly odd, especially for a major action picture.
The performances are all serviceable, and the script keeps things jogging along at a good pace. The story bounces off a few tantalizing ideas – Banning’s impending fatherhood, and the terrorists’ intention to execute the President live on the internet as a propaganda coup – without ever doing anything interesting with them.
Unfortunately, the one place where London Has Fallen does have something to say is where the movie takes a hard right turn to the dark side. During the prologue, two years before the main action, an American drone blows up an entire Pakastani wedding to kill terrorist leader and arms dealer Aamir Barkawi (Alon Aboutboul). Barkawi survives, and goes on to mastermind the London attack. This sets up an interesting dynamic: the only decent and human response is to feel shame for the American action, and for the deaths of Barkawi’s daughter, her fiancé, and the other civilians. So perhaps London Has Fallen will be an action movie with a conscience, and an awareness of how evil is done to us because we do evil ourselves? That was my hope early on, at least.
Silly me. In fact, I’m pretty sure the filmmakers deliberately set you up to feel that pang of moral introspection, just so they can berate you for it later. At one point, Asher declares the US had no idea civilians where there. It’s a patently ridiculous statement, as they get the info from an agent among the wedding attendants, and you can see the wedding tent on the US drone pilot’s screen. Then Banning, Asher, and other characters treat Barkawi’s sense of grievance with contempt. Even the boyscout/ruffian charm of Banning and Asher’s relationship is poisoned by the fact that it mainly plays out with Asher repeatedly asking Banning if it was really necessary to torture, maim, or desecrate so-and-so terrorist, and Banning replying “no” and, ha ha, isn’t it funny he did it anyway?
To top it all off, we get Morgan Freeman’s soothing baritone giving a speech Dick Cheney would love, informing us that America is in the right; that it will find and destroy its enemies; and that it is proper for America to “engage” with the world. “Engagement” in this case is a euphemism for blowing up a bunch of people at a wedding. London Has Fallen basically traffics in Marco Rubio’s enthusiasm for the Pax Americana by way of Donald Trump’s moral instincts.
When the lights went up, someone near me in the audience straight-up called the movie fascist. I wish I could say that was an overstatement.