London Has Fallen is a knockoff of a knockoff that swaggers like its own man. It's the sequel to 2013's Olympus Has Fallen, which was itself a spiritual sequel to Die Hard: one building, one terrorist group, too many hostages, and one walkie-talkie-taunting badass who can save the day. As the queasily exhilarating propaganda piece retraced Bruce Willis's bare footsteps, it was so bloodthirsty that it couldn't resist extra neck stabs (and gut stabs and head stabs and that dude who got his skull bashed in with a bust of Abraham Lincoln).
Like most sequel cash grabs, London Has Fallen is even bigger and dumber. Our battleground has expanded to England's capital city, recently destroyed in Thor: The Dark World, Star Trek Into Darkness, and G.I. Joe: Retaliation. (Sorry, guys! We're just sick of blowing up New York!) Our enemies have also expanded, from the hermit army of North Korea to a network of terrorists who hop from Pakistan to Yemen, enlisting others in a sneak attack to assassinate every Western head of state. As a British MI-6 agent (Elsa Mollien) attests, this new enemy is "the United Nations of every-fucking-body who hates us."
Let's be real. The original film, directed by Antoine Fuqua, was pretty racist against North Koreans. Like a Trump speech, that was part of its uncomfortable thrall — how crude would it get? New director Babak Najafi, who was born in Iran and fled to Sweden, is more cautious. He doesn't want to slander all Middle Easterners, even though every bad guy who gets a close-up is brown. His villains, he insists, can blend in with good old British bobbies, even those guys in the fur beehives. London's racial profiling is coy. When a group of terrorists disguise themselves as American soldiers, Gerard Butler's superhero bodyguard Banning figures out their identities with a glance — but not because of their skin color (olive) or beard (bushy). No, no, the script swears — it's because if these "soldiers" had run from the U.S. drop spot, they should be sweatier.
Yeah, yeah. London Has Fallen is still obsessed with stereotypes. Even America's allies are punch lines. Early on, Banning and his charge, President Asher (Aaron Eckhart, thankfully a POTUS in good enough shape to run), roll up to the prime minister's funeral — the bait that lures 40 leaders into a death trap. Najafi cuts to the other countries' rulers, and each is as predictable as an old stand-up routine — Germany is early, France is snottily late, and the Italian is on the rooftop of Westminster Abbey romancing a much-younger mistress — and right away, the terrorists find and kill them. While people will no doubt attack London for its Arab villains, spare a thought for their victims. Caricatures, not characters, murdered just to make the Americans look comparatively professional. I wouldn't blame Italians for throwing popcorn at the screen.
Head villain and arms dealer Aamir Barkawi (Alon Aboutboul) has a special plan for President Asher: execute him live on YouTube. Barkawi also has a motive. Two years before, American forces tried to kill him in a drone strike in Pakistan, but the U.S. missiles wiped out his daughter's wedding. Najafi is willing to humanize Barkawi — a little. In an opening flashback, we see him, as dignified and proud as Marlon Brando's Vito Corleone, surrounded by the lovely bride and a dance floor of grinning aunts. The women's doomed faces haunt us through the carnage to come. And President Asher's excuse that he didn't know about the bash sounds weak — especially when the U.S. drones prove to be so sensitive that they can spot Banning sending a silent message by holding his rifle in a different hand.
But Najafi doesn't want us to think too hard about the complexities of modern war. He wants to dwell on the last thing Barkawi said before his family was destroyed: "Vengeance must be profound and absolute." Which means: Look out, Gerard Butler. Shit's about to go down.
If only that shit were more fun. Najafi can shoot a car chase — a great one, in fact — but the second half of the film is all murky gunfights that make you squint to see who was shot and where. Instead of cutting to just one nervous Washington war room of advisers, he adds a second English headquarters, which gives us only half as much time with good actors like Morgan Freeman and Melissa Leo. (Leo, who had such powerful scenes in Olympus, is now treated like an extra.)
Worse, Najafi can't give London a personality. He tries, limply. Banning is a father-to-be, for no other reason than the contrast of seeing Butler, a stone slab who smiles, fret over how many security cameras to install in the nursery. Butler has stopped channeling Bruce Willis, but he's still not his own man. He doesn't even have his own catchphrase. He just poaches two of Schwarzenegger's, bellowing both "Get to the chopper!" and "I'll be back!"
Butler seems like he'd be great to pound beers with offscreen. I bet he comes to life in a bar. Here, however, he's a steel exoskeleton made of ego and expletives. When President Asher, mid-shootout, asks Banning what to do if his personal T-800 doesn't return, Butler grins and says, "You're fucked." Like a kid smoking cigarettes behind the gym, the movie is delighted to swear. And, like that twerpy kid, the behavior can make the film seem silly, like when a sweet deathbed speech suddenly ends with, "Make those fuckers pay!" Butler can't even drink a glass of water without blustering, "I'm thirsty as fuck!"
That line made my theater snort. Najafi would be relieved. Like its predecessor, London Has Fallen doesn't want to be taken totally seriously — if audiences did that, they'd find it repugnant. (And the audiences who will treat it seriously are people I'd rather not meet.) As an action flick, it's mediocre. As War on Terror agitprop, it hurts us as much as it hurts our enemies. The movie is so thrilled to prove our might — even at the cost of innocent lives – that America looks like a meathead aching for an excuse to brawl. When Banning twists a knife in a killer's spine just so his friends can hear him scream, the president gasps, "Was that really necessary?"
"No," shrugs Banning. And the fight rages on.