The MVP here is Nick fucking Nolte.
The unlikely Has Fallen franchise, a series of films starring Gerard Butler as near-superhuman Secret Service agent Mike Banning, have thus far been jingoistic throwbacks whose lack of depth or flair was buoyed by a unique and persistent dedication to grisly, patriotic violence. They’re ugly films bereft of style or grace, but long on ferocity. The latest entry, Angel Has Fallen, shrewdly pivots from the paradigm for a film that breaks the cycle for more fascinating results.
First, he saved the President from terrorists taking over the White House and then he did it again, but this time, in London, Mike Banning isn’t the first at bat in a feature length, one-setting action sequence. Rather than try for the Die Hard-in-a-___ hat trick, incoming director Ric Roman Waugh brings the grit and scope of his gangster epic Shot Caller to Mike’s shoot-em-up world. This is the first of these films where Mike is an actual character, someone the audience spends time with outside of stabbing foreigners directly in the skull while barking at bureaucrats in a remote strong hold.
The Mike Banning of Angel Has Fallen isn’t so unstoppable. Instead of the Herculean embodiment of American resolve, he’s broken down, wounded, with a painkiller addiction and a litany of injuries sustained over the last two films. He’s in line for a promotion to be the new Director of the Secret Service, a desk job that would keep him out of the line of fire and give him more time with his wife (Piper Perabo replacing Radha Mitchell) and young child. But Mike isn’t ready to lay down his sword when his king still needs protection.
So, when an army of drones kills Mike’s entire team and leaves President Trumbull (Morgan Freeman) in a coma, FBI Agent Thompson (Jada Pinkett-Smith) is convinced he’s behind the attack, especially when they find $10 million from Russia in an offshore account bearing his name. Mike’s gotta go on the run, both from the entire nation out to catch the guy who tried to kill a beloved leader and from the sketchy private military guys who framed him in the first place, led by Mike’s old friend Wade (Danny Huston). Events play out more in The Fugitive vein than the reactionary bulletfests of the earlier films, but there’s still room for big explosions and copious combat.
The downside to this paradigm shift is that Angel Has Fallen feels more like a straightforward thriller, a throwback to Tom Clancy adaptations and not the ruthlessly violent films to which its predecessors paid homage. But by taking more time to build the plot and stack the deck against Mike Banning, when the action does pop off, it feels more welcome. Outside of the murky opening sequence, every bit of action Waugh stages is effective, a far cry from the muddy ugliness of the other two films. Working with frequent Luc Besson collaborator Robert Mark Kamen on the script, Waugh lends the franchise’s propaganda welcome shades of gray, forcing this stoic flag-waver to accept complexities about his country and the realities of never ending war.
But casting is what really sets this film aside. Outside of Butler doing sterling work as the overachieving Russell Crowe stand-in he’s always been, Huston really brings out his best as the film’s villain. Initially Waugh had cast Holt McCallany, who would have been more formidable physically, but Huston adds so much more gravitas to the role, chewing the scenery but employing subtlety when necessary. The MVP, however, is Nick fucking Nolte, who shows up midway through as Mike’s long lost father.
From the moment his bedraggled ass hunches into frame, it becomes Nolte’s picture. In pro wrestling, when a worker is long past his physical prime and can’t do the same moves in the ring, he can still walk between the ropes and command a crowd with his presence alone. Nolte here is like Terry Funk, a grizzled veteran hold the audience in the palm of his hand with his every utterance and mannerism. It’s unlikely this film will be big enough to kickstart a real comeback for Nolte, even with him appearing in the Disney+ series “The Mandalorian,” but seeing performers like him and moderately more substantive screenwriting on display, it’s possible Lionsgate can wring out another few Fallen films, so long as they can find more reasons to try to kill a President. Surely, that part won’t be hard.