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Saving The President's Bacon Again In 'London Has Fallen'

Gerard Butler stars as Mike Banning in <em>London Has Fallen</em>.
Courtesy of Focus Features
Gerard Butler stars as Mike Banning in London Has Fallen.

A moment of silence, please, for the many fictional lives lost and nonfictional careers sullied in London Has Fallen. It's the sequel to Olympus Has Fallen, the gnarlier and less funny of 2013's two (!) Die Hard rip-offs set inside the White House. Olympus was the 36th-highest-grossing film in America that year, but its visible penny-pinching and its modest success abroad have been factored in to make a follow-up as inevitable as Zoolander 2 or Fuller House. My fellow Americans, I can say this without fear of overreach: London Has Fallen is the Fuller House of red-meat action movies. In the sense that what initially looks like a mostly harmless hit of nostalgia for Reagan-era junk food turns out to be a slow-release capsule of apocalyptic dread.

The premise this time is that President Benjamin Asher (Aaron Eckhart) must attend the funeral of the British prime minister. But as the Royal Navy's Lord Admiral Ackbar once observed, "It's a trap!" A Pakistani arms merchant (Israeli actor Alon Moni Aboutboul) seeking revenge for the death of his family in a drone strike has flooded the British capital with hundreds of would-be assassins dressed like cops. The only man POTUS can trust to get him out is Secret Service agent Mike Banning, once again played by Gerard Butler, a vaguely sentient three-day beard who is no better at hiding his Scottish brogue than Sean Connery was, though he sort of tries.

Banning's wife (Australian Radha Mitchell) is expecting their first child any day now; he has been fussing over the diction of a two-sentence email that would announce his resignation from the Secret Service. He is a classic reluctant warrior, minus the reluctance. As before, he kills scores of people in blurry, underlit confrontations; mostly using firearms, but with a marked propensity for stabbing when a tool is available. "I've never seen a man suffocate before," a shell-shocked Asher blurts after a surprise throat-punching demonstration. "I didn't have a knife," Banning growls. Those mots! So bon!

Save for director Antoine Fuqua, who moved on to the greener pastures of, um, The Equalizer, most of the key players from Olympus have returned: Academy Award winner Morgan Freeman (he was speaker of the House before; in this movie he's the vice president), Academy Award winner Melissa Leo as the secretary of defense, Academy Award nominee Angela Bassett as the director of the Secret Service, Academy Award nominee Robert Forster as the chairman of the Joint Chiefs. New to this installment is Academy Award nominee Jackie Earle Haley as some Cabinet official or security adviser or something, because what this film clearly needed was one more overqualified actor in the Situation Room to look worried and occasionally bark into a phone.

Eckhart never got that kind of acclaim — well, he was nominated for a Golden Globe once — but in movies like In the Company of Men and Thank You for Smoking and The Dark Knight, he sure seemed destined for better than this. Only Butler is making the best possible use of his gift, his gift being to make Vin Diesel seem like Daniel Day-Lewis. If he and the equally square-jawed Eckhart were to swap roles, it could only help.

In his English-language debut, Swedish director Babak Najafi generates far less tension or atmosphere than he did in his prior sequel, the crime picture Snabba cash II(also known as Easy Money II: Hard To Kill), and evinces little mastery of the digital tools that have become de rigueur for action films. As in Olympus Has Fallen, the scenes depicting air-to-air combat and the resulting damage to centuries-old historic sites are rendered in reassuringly phony-looking CGI. He throws a time stamp in the bottom left corner of the screen occasionally, lest anyone be left wondering what time it is in the part of London that looks like Sofia, Bulgaria.

The primary screenwriters were the husband-and-wife team of Creighton Rothenberger and Katrin Benedikt; Olympus was their first script sale. (Sylvester Stallone was impressed enough to hire them for The Expendables 3.) In that first movie, they at least troubled themselves to imagine what a coordinated attack to overrun the White House might look like. They also put in a scene in which that beardy Scotsman bludgeoned a North Korean terrorist (played by an American) using a bust of Abraham Lincoln.

London Has Fallen can't even muster that level of grim surrealism. In an election year that already recalls the late '80s or early '90s but with new depths of vulgarity, the escapism it purports to offer feels a lot more like confinement.

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