London Has Fallen exhibits such coarse, blunt sincerity that it’s almost stirring in a way. At a time when our culture is growing more sensitive to the perspectives of other people in far-off lands, here’s an unsophisticated film that proudly goes around dropping F-bombs, shooting foreign baddies in the head at point-blank range and declaring that nothing beats the good ‘ol U.S. of A. As a sequel nobody really needed to 2013’s painfully dull action-thriller Olympus Has Fallen, London Has Fallen is both better than expected and a brutish waste of time. It’s the sort of pseudo-blockbuster studios release in March because they know it wouldn’t stand a chance against the big guns of summer.
Gerard Butler reprises his role as Mike Banning, a Secret Service agent assigned to protect President Benjamin Asher (Aaron Eckhart). In Olympus, Banning was looking for redemption after pulling Asher from a submerged car but failing to rescue the president’s beloved wife. Happily, in London there’s no such pretense of character drama. (Sure, Banning is considering quitting the Secret Service to be closer to his pregnant wife, played by Radha Mitchell, but nobody in the theater believes he’s serious about going through with his resignation.)
Instead, the new film has a shoot-‘em-up simplicity. Banning must safeguard Asher singlehandedly after a Middle Eastern terrorist named Aamir Barkawi (Alon Moni Aboutboul) fiendishly executes a large-scale attack in London while the world’s leaders are all gathered there for the British prime minister’s funeral. Wary of trusting anyone—and unable to establish communications with the American vice president (Morgan Freeman), who’s back in the States—Banning has no choice but to go it alone as he escorts Asher down dangerous, bombed-out London streets toward the American embassy.
Director Babak Najafi (who’s worked on the Cinemax show Banshee) takes over the reins from Olympus filmmaker Antoine Fuqua, and the two improvements he brings to the franchise are a more efficient, stripped-down series of action sequences and a giddier treatment of this ludicrous material. Olympus kept trying to give its hokey “Die Hard in the White House” premise a solemn, ripped-from-the-headlines topicality, as if Americans’ greatest fear was a few rogue North Koreans who could somehow penetrate Washington’s ultra-tight security and take 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. hostage. London does dip its toe into social commentary—Barkawi’s beef with the U.S. is focused on our ethically slippery drone program—but you can sense that nobody working on the movie really cares about such matters. The filmmakers are too busy expanding the Die Hard conceit so that it encompasses a whole city under siege by well-armed thugs.
Working with what appears to be a relatively low budget for an action movie—the special effects can be awfully chintzy—Najafi emphasizes Butler’s bruising muscularity in sequences that are never stunningly original but do have their gritty, propulsive kicks. In London, buildings blow up, helicopters get shot out of the sky, and motorcycles driven by guys with machine guns give chase to our heroes’ getaway vehicle, which provides Banning ample opportunity to hang out the side and return fire. Najafi knows how to give this compendium of action tropes an adrenalized gusto, whittling them down to their kinetic essence.
Amidst the spectacle, London takes a stab at mocking its own lack of originality by letting Banning be a smartass, quick with an ice-cold quip after he offs his pursuers. But the problem is that, onscreen, Butler has rarely demonstrated any semblance of a winning or magnetic personality. Maybe that’s why London works best when the Scottish actor just bears down and goes into full-on bruiser mode: He’s got far more range than a Schwarzenegger or a Stallone, but despite his good looks and buff physique, he’s less a movie star than a solid fill-in who can fake it convincingly enough. In London, Butler comes across as a relatively compelling presence, and yet you’re always making a mental list of the ten or twelve actors who’d be far more fun in the role.
Oscar-winners and nominees dot the supporting cast, and it’s hard to say what any of them are bringing to this threadbare film except a touch of class. Freeman intones with that wonderfully honeyed voice of his, while Melissa Leo, Robert Forster, and Jackie Earle Haley (who play members of Asher’s elite team of advisors back in Washington) have so little to do you start to assume that their characters must secretly be in cahoots with Barkawi. Otherwise, why cast such big names in such nothing roles?
To be sure, London almost gets by on its snotty, hopelessly juvenile mindset. There can be something sophomorically pleasurable in watching resolute simpletons like Asher and Banning curse a blue streak while running for their lives and dodging enemy fire. (The movie is practically the big-and-dopey embodiment of what underage boys imagine R-rated movies are like, except without the nudity.)
But those pleasures are always clipped by the movie’s retrograde attitudes. If an out-of-the-blue gay joke doesn’t kill the audience’s good will toward London, then certainly the increasingly jingoistic worldview will. Barkawi may consider America to be the Great Satan because of its aggressive, callous foreign policy, but London has no time for such moral qualms. Eckhart plays Asher as a boringly noble figure, showing just how much of a badass American he is by uttering the presidential oath of office while being hit in the head by a terrorist right before he’s to be executed live on the internet. Najafi invokes the zeitgeist-y horror of terror attacks, but it’s only to perpetuate a harmful media representation of the Westerners as the undeniable good guys and anyone with darker skin as the exotic, wicked bad guys.
To a certain extent, it’s hard to criticize London on these grounds. (The movie doesn’t have a brain in its head, so anything offensive is more a byproduct of thoughtlessness than an act of willful intention.) But at the same time, Najafi’s ambition to make an old-fashioned, R-rated action flick mostly means reverting to a bygone way of seeing the world and America’s place in it. That the film stars a Scottish actor and was directed by an Iranian-born Swede only makes London Has Fallen more ridiculous. It’s bad enough that plenty of U.S. moviegoers buy into this attitude—it’s downright heartbreaking that, in the name of a paycheck, outsiders must as well.