If the Mike Banning (Gerard Butler) of London Has Fallen was a Jack Bauer for the Trump era—belligerently and relentlessly violent, doubling down on absolutely everything, “thirsty as fuck”—then the Mike Banning of Angel Has Fallen is a Jack Bauer for whatever moribund purgatory we currently endure. The ...Has Fallen series, of which Angel is the third entry, bears more than obvious resemblance to 24, our good big rectangle boy Mike Banning a cinematic euphemism for similarly fallen former government agent Jack Bauer—both inhumanly committed to their country, and both ruined by it.
In 24, what seemed to begin as a jingoistic macho fantasy emerged pretty quickly as a distended study on just how much patriotism costs. In the first season, Jack Bauer loses his wife. By the ninth, the government has completely disavowed him, pushing him into exile, completely forgetting how many apocalypses he’s helped avert and giving him nothing but trauma for his decades of service. (Still, he risks everything to stop an attempt on the President’s life.) In Angel Has Fallen, Mike Banning’s body is an open sore, his head a steaming pile of CTE and PTSD, the whole movie a sometimes weirdly somber affair about the tolls of violence. (Still, he risks everything to stop an attempt on the President’s life.) The last line of the movie is Nick Nolte announcing he’s going to pee himself.
The Henry Sr. to Mike’s Indiana Jones, Nolte is Clay Banning, a decorated veteran haunted by his past. Reunited with his son after however many long years, Clay’s living in the wilderness of Virginia, ensconced within a carefully concealed acre of explosives and surveillance and one well-constructed underground tunnel, only compelled to surface when his son has nowhere else to go. Framed for an attack on President Trumbull (Morgan Freeman, the only man allowed to play Movie President anymore, hot off his many sexual harassment allegations) that left his whole security team dead but the mission unfinished, Mike ends up on the run, murdering (and stealing a semi) his way back to his wife (Piper Perabo) and baby daughter and special best friend the President, who surely will believe that this is all a mistake once he wakes up from that coma.
Then Nick Nolte shambles into frame, a revenant in flannel delivering a super brief sermon on why he’s fled his former life, why he can’t trust the government, why people like him and his son are broken. It makes sense: Director Roman Ric Waugh’s introduction of Mike Banning this time around foregrounds the man’s physical dissolution. Stricken by frequent migraines and constant back pain, only symptoms of deeper issues to come, our hero denies pleas from his doctor to quit his taxing job as his best friend the President’s personal heavy. To his credit, Gerard Butler has settled well into his late-40s body; he is a massive block of cheese, and as Mike Banning he’s learned how to wield that bulk to empathetic ends, embracing the misery of his character’s day-to-day existence. We feel for Mike Banning more than in any other installment, because Butler carries him like he’s seriously struggling, gritting his teeth and holding conversations seemingly staring through a fog. The man hurts.
In what’s becoming an interesting facet of the Fallen movies, Mike Banning’s handed over to a new director once again. While Olympus Has Fallen sequel London Has Fallen gave Iranian-Swedish director Babak Najafi the chance to push Banning to gleefully needless extremes, Waugh complements his predecessor by attempting something subtler and smaller: to slow Mike Banning down without wrenching the franchise to a halt. Angel Has Fallen isn’t a drastic reimagining of the Fallen mythos, more a simplification, a head-stab at some intimacy.
In turn, Waugh’s action set pieces don’t surprise so much as operate with impressive efficiency, shot by Jules O’Laughlin with a well-timed sense for preserving the mood of each scene (occasionally somber, or dead-serious, or patently absurd, or just generally toned down) without sacrificing an effective grasping of space. We get the aforementioned stolen semi chase through suffocatingly dark forest roads; we get the aforementioned tour de force of Clay Banning yelling terse bon mots while men explode in a circle of flame around him, Mike (woken from a dead sleep, likely nursing a monster headache) attempting to engage in hand-to-hand combat to eliminate a small army of mercenaries before his dad burns the forest to the ground; we get a solid shoot-out in the end. It isn’t a handsome movie so much as sufficiently tonally on point, shot through with a sense of suffering at the heart of Mike Banning, knowing that, in the end, he’ll return to President Trumbull having defeated his enemies—who we’ve long ago identified as bad guys the moment they came on screen—preserving the safety of countless Americans, ready to repress countless abhorrent memories, seeking that promotion to Secret Service Director. There will be a sequel; Nick Nolte will play a bigger part; President Trumbull will be President forever and ever; and Jada Pinkett Smith won’t be in it because she’s only in this movie as an FBI Agent who has no bearing to the plot, no functional arc, no real character, her life but a flicker in the cosmos of the cruel, beautiful Fallen universe.
Director: Ric Roman Waugh
Writers: Robert Mark Kamen, Matt Cook & Ric Roman Waugh
Starring: Gerard Butler, Nick Nolte, Morgan Freeman, Piper Perabo, Jada Pinkett Smith, Lance Reddick, Danny Huston
Release Date: August 23, 2019
Dom Sinacola is Associate Movies Editor at Paste and a Portland-based writer. You can follow him on Twitter.