Angel Has Fallen review: Gerard Butler turns down the nastiness and ups the action

Gerard Butler in Angel Has Fallen
Gerard Butler in Angel Has Fallen

Dir: Ric Roman Waugh. Cast: Gerard Butler, Morgan Freeman, Jada Pinkett Smith, Nick Nolte, Piper Perabo, Danny Huston, Tim Blake Nelson, Lance Reddick. 15 cert, 121 min

Angel Has Fallen is almost worth seeing. It could gain this distinction for the end-credits sting alone, which features – wait for it – a half-naked Nick Nolte bestially moaning in a zero-gravity flotation tank. How did we get from Olympus Has Fallen (2013) and London Has Fallen (2016) to this? While a palpable upgrade, it’s not an altogether simple one to explain.

In what we shall now call the Has Fallen trilogy, those previous entries starred a snarling Gerard Butler as ’Nam-vet-turned-Secret- Service-agent Mike Banning, a Presidential bodyguard tasked with getting rid of anyone even vaguely terrorist-shaped as sadistically as possible.

Everyone involved, both on screen and off, has had a long, hard think, and decided to make a considerably less nasty film on this occasion. Politicians opt for pacifism over war, or are allowed to ponder decreases in defence spending without the script hissing in their general direction. Even Banning, wheezing with some chronic health issue, is inching his way towards a mellow desk job, like Harrison Ford in his early-1990s Jack Ryan pictures.

Twice, he earlier saved the POTUS played by Aaron Eckhart, who hasn’t made it as far as this third one, unceremoniously written out in favour of his freshly inaugurated VP, one Allan Trumbull. This is Morgan Freeman in rumbling-wise-words-of-God mode – his likelihood of cruising towards a second term (or third sequel) only lessened by the fact that Freeman is now 82. Even doddery old Reagan bowed out at 77, for heaven’s sake.

Not to worry. Freeman spends at least half this film comatose in a hospital bed, after barely surviving a massive aerial drone strike launched by covert ops on American soil. Only Trumbull and Banning, out bonding on a lake, escape with their lives, in a nimbly orchestrated set piece which overturns the whole emphasis of the series. The bodies sent flying are those of Banning’s loyal security team, and not one foreigner, in fact, bites the dust throughout this film’s (alas, still pudgy) running time.

All suspicions fall on Banning, rather than, say, two shifty supporting players whom any viewer could pick out as wrong ’uns within moments. But if surprise or intelligence aren’t the specialities of Ric Roman Waugh’s film, it’s pretty sturdy with face-offs and firepower. You get Jada Pinkett Smith’s “I want THIS, now!” FBI agent trying to lock down and/or cordon off every last location, as if starring in her own mini-remake of The Fugitive, and you don’t have to grimace your way through the thuggy politics of the earlier two films.

How, you might ask, is Nolte involved? He’s Banning’s estranged dad, a fellow vet living – naturally, for this is Nolte – as a fulminating wild man in a booby-trapped woodland shack. He gives the film some weird, unexpected ballast, whether sounding off about ’Nam and Iraq – same book, different cover – or triggering more C-4 to explode around the hut’s perimeter than we used to witness in entire seasons of The A-Team. “You’re welcome!” he growls – to us, or to his son? – after carving a needlessly huge fiery swathe through the forest.

Butler, unfortunately, is still a dead weight tied to the heels of his own franchise. Even when he’s playing a Banning who’s far more bearable, for which some respect is due, he isn’t alert enough to give us a particularly good time. And while I spotted a bunch of rather random nods to Clear and Present Danger, they just suggest someone’s redundant taste in 1994 Tom Clancy flicks, rather than serving to improve the entirely bog-standard script we’re saddled with.

To be the best of the Has Fallens – clearing that bar with undeniable ease – is a poignantly mixed fate.