The Austin Chronicle

Angel Has Fallen

Rated R, 120 min. Directed by Ric Roman Waugh. Starring Gerard Butler, Piper Perabo, Morgan Freeman, Jada Pinkett Smith, Danny Huston, Nick Nolte, Lance Reddick, Tim Blake Nelson.

REVIEWED By Matthew Monagle, Fri., Aug. 23, 2019

Mike Banning (Butler) may have a new-same wife (Perabo, replacing series regular Radha Mitchell) and a new-same president (Freeman, reprising his prior VP), but one thing remains the same: Anyone who wants to attack the premier seat of power in the United States has to go through him first. When now-President Trumbull is left unresponsive after an unexpected attack, a relentless FBI investigator (Pinkett Smith) tries to prove that Banning was the one who masterminded the assault with the Kremlin. To prove his innocence, a battered Banning must connect with his Vietnam vet father (Nolte) and hold off the (blessedly Caucasian) mercenary forces trying to frame him.

There’s a fascinating tension between the expected and the unexpected in director Ric Roman Waugh’s films. Whereas the previous Fallen movies moved in a predictable manner  –  foreign invaders attack the president, beefy Mike Banning holds them off  –  Angel Has Fallen attempts to tell a slightly more mature story. Waugh seems to barter for creative control by the act: As long as the studio gets a respectable pairing of intro and outro set-pieces, Waugh is free to explore unexpected elements of trauma and masculinity.

Take the concussion subplot. It’s an inspired bit of writing. Given all the physical trauma that Banning has been through in the first two films, this is a way for the film to acknowledge those events without wasting valuable screen time on rehashing Butler’s heroics. Angel Has Fallen never overtly addresses Banning’s actions in the previous films  – law enforcement is quick to accept his guilt without regard to the two times he has previously saved the president of the United States  – but his persistent headaches at least add some level of accountability. Given the hypermasculinity of the first two films, viewing Banning as a soldier who doesn’t know how to react when his body begins to betray him is a powerful way for Waugh to stick a stake in the ground going forward.

This seems to be the movie within the movie for Waugh. The physical and mental trauma Banning must overcome to save the president is one element; the willingness of the United States to sacrifice young men to the war machine is another. Neither of these can truly be the dominant themes of Angel Has Fallen  – the audience for these films would revolt if Banning did not overcome a superior force with cunning and guile  – but Waugh’s approach of wedging substance between set-pieces elevates this to the top of the trilogy. Nolte may end up a doddering old man with abandonment guilt, but in the middle of the film, we get to know a Vietnam veteran who chose to leave his family when he could come to terms with his PTSD. That raises questions we want to know the answers to, even if we know our intellectual war allegories will be pretty short-lived.

This also explains why Banning shares so much of the movie’s big moments. The initial drone attack  –  one of the more inspired action sequences to hit theatres this year  –  focuses as much on the violent deaths of the Secret Service members as it does Banning’s charge to save the president. Similarly, the final firefight that pits a tactical unit against slowly advancing private contractors reminds us that there is more to this violence than just Banning and the president. Angel Has Fallen gently reminds us of the true cost of war  –  real or imagined  –  while still providing Butler with an opportunity to play the $70 million hero. That makes the film both exactly what you expected and, somehow, a little bit better, too.

For an interview with director Ric Roman Waugh, read "On Broken Wings," Aug. 23.

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