Two movies, same scenario: Moments before a scheduled execution, just as the blade or gas pellet is set to deliver its fatal blow, the hero bursts into the room and carries the victim to safety. Banter is exchanged:
“What took you so long?”
“Traffic was a bitch.”
“What took you so long?”
“I had a couple of errands to run.”
Now, a quiz: Which exchange is from London Has Fallen, the sequel to the White House–under-siege thriller Olympus Has Fallen, and which is the last line from the movie-within-a-movie in Robert Altman’s 1992 Hollywood satire The Player? There’s virtually no difference, except the punchline from the Altman (“Traffic was a bitch”) is less awful by a slim margin. That movie-within-a-movie is the sellout ending a pair of once-earnest filmmakers devise after test audiences hated their original vision. Yesterday’s satire is today’s studio business as usual. Movies ... Now More Than Ever.
The first, worst and most profitable of competing presidential-assault thrillers from 2013 — the second, White House Down, arrived three months later — Olympus Has Fallen treated a terrorist attack on 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue with the utmost seriousness, like a scenario that had been gamed out on Fox News. In essence, it was another “Die Hard in a [blank]” shoot-'em-up, but because it was about totally plausible matters of national security, the only fun it offered was whatever one-liners Gerard Butler squeezed out. At the time, it felt like a Bush administration relic that had slipped into Obama’s second term, a chest-thumping affirmation of American might against all threats foreign and domestic.
Yet here is London Has Fallen, which moves the action to a monument-rich European capital but is otherwise the same generic, po-faced bore as the original. To a score flooded with choral wailings — this selection must be labeled “scary brown people” on the Hollywood soundboard — the film opens with a wedding outside Lahore, Pakistan, where ruthless arms dealer Aamir Barkawi (Alon Aboutboul) is attending his daughter’s nuptials. An American drone strike presumably wipes out Barkawi along with most of his family and associates, but he emerges from hiding with a comprehensive revenge plan two years later. When the British prime minister dies of a heart attack, leaders from around the world arrive in London for the funeral, including U.S. President Benjamin Asher (Aaron Eckhart), accompanied by Mike Banning (Butler), who leads his Secret Service detail. It turns out to be an elaborate trap, with traitors within the police force, Buckingham Palace guards, and the upper echelon of Scotland Yard all working together to knock off heads of state from across the Western and industrialized world.
How could the same highly coordinated attacks happen to the same guy twice? Banning and President Kick-Ass not only seem to anticipate such catastrophes, but actively train for them in competitive morning jogs and boxing sessions. They’re also up for any clichés, such as the terrorist who talks too much or Banning accepting this One Last Job before tendering his resignation and becoming a father. (As Banning’s wife, poor Radha Mitchell, who once battled nocturnal aliens in Pitch Black, has to stay behind and finish setting up the nursery.)
Familiar faces from Olympus Has Fallen return: Morgan Freeman as vice president, Angela Bassett as director of the Secret Service, a near-silent Melissa Leo as Secretary of State. On the American side, old hands like Robert Forster and Jackie Earle Haley are more or less seat-fillers at the Situation Room roundtable, and among the British there’s a gallery of shifty-eyed agents offered up as potential moles. Each character, no matter how insignificant, gets his or her name and title printed in austere spy-movie typeface in the lower lefthand corner of the screen, to the point where London Has Fallen starts to feel like “Too Many Cooks.” For a film essentially about two men dodging machine-gun fire in a blacked-out London, it spends a lot of time making introductions.
Taking over for Antoine Fuqua, Swedish director Babak Najafi, who honed his technical chops on Easy Money II: Hard to Kill, dutifully lays waste to the city, lopping the towers off Westminster Abbey and ensuring that at least one London bridge is falling down. The action never stops once the first car bomb is triggered, but the second half of London Has Fallen takes place mostly in the dark, where nobody can see the budget. At one point, Banning and the president outrun a gas explosion that swallows an entire building. They do this by diving around a corner. Yippie ki-yay, motherfucker.