Time was, straight-up, modest actioners like ANGEL HAS FALLEN were quite common. They thrived in the ’80s and ’90s especially and turned Arnold Schwarzenegger, Sylvester Stallone, Bruce Willis, and Jean-Claude Van Damme into superstars. Now, such films are usually 100 million-dollar tentpoles, filled with extravagant CGI, and almost cartoonish action. (Ahem, the FAST & FURIOUS films.) So, it’s rather pleasing to find a franchise like this one still plugging along with a more earnest approach. Gerard Butler isn’t quite the macho presence as those above four, but he grounds such fare with his acting skills, and his authoritative manner even lends gravitas to all the shenanigans. ANGEL HAS FALLEN is not a great film, but it dots its I’s and crosses its T’s pretty well for the better part of its two-hour running time.
In the world of Secret Service Agent Mike Banning (Butler), someone is always trying to take out a president or a world leader or two. Here, another secret cabal is plotting the demise of the American President, only this time it’s Morgan Freeman, reprising his role as Allan Trumbull. (Trumbull’s gone from Speaker of the House to Veep to POTUS over the trajectory of the three films in the franchise.) Good thing Banning is still in the field, pulling duty right next to Trumbull.
Trumbull likes Banning so much, he wants to promote him to top dog at the Secret Service, but the crusty vet is resistant. He’s a doer, not a desk job kind of guy, plus Banning doesn’t entirely trust anyone around the POTUS, not after all he’s seen. And he’s there to provide the only cover he wholly believes in – his own.
Interestingly, this film also finds Banning fighting age, his beaten-down body, and the imploring to spend more time with his baby daughter by his wife Leah (Piper Perabo, replacing Radha Mitchell who played the part in OLYMPUS HAS FALLEN and LONDON HAS FALLEN). Butler plays the inner turmoil well, using his stoicism to advantage as he chews over such issues.
And, whether by choice or by nature, Butler does look considerably older than his actual 49 years in this film, and doesn’t try to hide his wrinkles and middle-agedness. This B story lends the proceedings and the character of Banning a new air of vulnerability this time out. Not that the A story isn’t enough already to overcome. Here, Banning’s troubles begin when the president is attacked during a fishing retreat by a multitude of high-powered drones. They take out the entire Secret Service detail, except for Banning and the POTUS whom he saves by diving with him into the drink.
Later, in a DC hospital, the president is in a coma and Banning finds himself handcuffed to a hospital bed. The FBI wonders why Banning is the only survivor and the top Fed, played by a no-nonsense Jada Pinkett Smith, suspects him of being part of a conspiracy. You’d think the Bureau would be smart enough to realize that all the evidence they find pointing the finger at Banning is planted, but then we wouldn’t have a movie, would we?
Before you know it, Banning escapes and the movie really gets going. The middle section of the film is the best part of the action as things take on the flavor of that Harrison Ford classic THE FUGITIVE from 1993. Banning runs, jumps, and drives all kinds of vehicles to stay a few steps ahead of the hordes of cops after him, and truly lives up to his code name “Angel.” Even though he’s almost over the hill, he can still take flight, evading his captors, and earning cheers from the rapt audience in the Cineplex.
The best 10 minutes of the film showcases Banning outsmarting two yokels trying to make a citizens arrest at a gas station, followed by a well-shot and tense pursuit along various roads involving a semi-truck. Meanwhile, back in DC, his wife frets, the FBI fumes, and the POTUS still sleeps. Banning is a man against the world.
The big twist in the film that comes next doesn’t involve the villain ex-pat Jennings, slyly underplayed by perennial bad guy Danny Huston. Nor does it occur when the FBI’s detective work leads to them realizing that Banning is innocent. No, the gobsmacking surprise comes when Banning shows up on his survivalist father’s doorstep in the deep woods, and the film takes a distinct turn towards comedy. His dad is played by Nick Nolte, and his interactions with his estranged son turn what was a taut piece of action into a film bordering on silliness.
Granted, there is a certain ludicrousness to these types of films anyway, but the third act here often becomes an eye-rolling farce. Do the booby-traps set by Nolte’s dad that kill all of Banning’s enemies in the woods have to be so bombastically cartoonish? Does one of the final fights in the movie need to have two macho men throwing down their weapons to “solve” things mano a mano through fisticuffs? And does the ever-serious Banning have to fall into “Odd Couple” interplay with his cranky old man?
Perhaps director Ric Roman Waugh, and his co-screenwriters Robert Mark Kamen and Matt Cook, plus story contributors Katrin Benedikt and Creighton Rothenberger, felt the need to goose things this third time out. It mars the tone though and throws good will away. They can’t even resist a cornball post-credit sequence that seems like an outtake from GRUMPY OLD MEN. Let’s hope that if Angel retakes wing, the next film treats the story and its audience a bit more seriously. I’d hate to think that this franchise will have fallen into an outright parody.