“By seeing London, I have seen as much of life as the world can show,” said Samuel Johnson in 1773, as quoted by biographer James Boswell. By seeing “London Has Fallen,” on the other hand, Johnson may conversely have marveled at a veritable cornucopia of death — the grisly, indiscriminate slaying of world leaders and common men, the swift pulverization of city infrastructure, and the slower decimation of any unsuspecting viewer’s brain cells. Aiming low and still managing to limbo its way under that bar, Babak Najafi’s cement-headed sequel to 2013’s POTUS-in-peril thriller “Olympus Has Fallen” shifts and expands the battleground from the White House to the Big Smoke, while maintaining a cozily American jingoism in its narrative scope and stakes. Cruddily crafted, grimacingly performed and effortlessly racist, this sloppy dish of Gruel Britannia may just go down well enough to green-light a continuing franchise of global destruction. World capitals quiver.
Three years ago to the month, action journeyman Antoine Fuqua’s “Olympus Has Fallen” reaped the benefits of a modest budget and minimal expectations. Released months ahead of Roland Emmerich’s far wittier, more accomplished but near-identically plotted “White House Down,” “Olympus” was pegged as the cheapjack warm-up act for a predicted summer smash — only to wind up outgrossing Emmerich’s superior slab of cheese by nearly $30 million. Even within the exclusive realm of bad taste, there’s no accounting for it.
Now, with Iranian-born Swede Najafi (“Easy Money II: “Hard to Kill”) filling in for Fuqua, “London Has Fallen” arrives with only the unimposing memory of its predecessor to compete against. Somehow, it falls short. Where “Olympus” was at least cloddishly good-humored in its “Die Hard” stylings, there’s something coldly snarling and vindictive about its sequel’s flag-waving — not to mention a presumptuousness that global auds will invest equally in its on-screen fight for American leaders and freedoms, at any cost to those of other nations.
London certainly provides an attractive backdrop to the carnage: If you’re going to blow up any thoroughfare, after all, it may as well be one as storied and scenic as Chelsea Bridge, while the Houses of Parliament look smashing even when smashed to suboptimal CG smithereens. In no other sense is Blighty flattered here, however, as the pic’s story (by returning scribes Creighton Rothenberger and Katrin Benedikt) hinges on the country’s government, police force and intelligence service being unreservedly inept, corrupt, or some combination of the two. No wonder Secret Service director Lynne Jacobs (Angela Bassett, thanklessly stentorian as ever) discourages Aaron Eckhart’s President Benjamin Asher from leaving the eternally secure confines of the U.S. when Britain’s Prime Minister unexpectedly drops dead. Must he really attend the poor Limey’s funeral? Won’t a nice wreath from Interflora do?
Bloody-minded diplomat that he is, Asher insists on showing his transatlantic solidarity in person — with his trusty, venison-bodied protection agent Mike Banning (Gerard Butler) in tow to guard him against bumbling British incompetence and devious terrorist machinations of farther-flung origin. While North Korea was the enemy in “Olympus,” “London” predictably reverts to familiar Islamophobia, as infamous Pakistani arms dealer Aamir Barkawi (Alon Moni Aboutboul) vows vengeance on the West for a drone strike that — as depicted in a sun-scorched pre-credit sequence — fatally ruined his daughter’s wedding. A solemn gathering of world leaders at St. Paul’s Cathedral provides the perfect opportunity; in short order, terrorist minions in bobby-on-the-beat disguise are gunning down civilians in the street, revered London landmarks are crumbling to dubiously digitized dust, and the German, French, Italian and Japanese heads of state have all joined their British counterpart at the great global summit in the sky. (Don’t mourn the Italian, though — we’re shown he was a total lech.)
As London goes into lockdown, the city’s darkening streets effectively become an ever-less-distinct obstacle course for Asher and Banning, breathlessly dodging Barkawi’s clutches as Vice-President Morgan Freeman and senior staff Melissa Leo, Robert Forster and Jackie Earle Haley twiddle their white-knuckled thumbs back in D.C. (One would complain that they’re underused, though perhaps the greater offense is that such fine actors are being used for this tripe at all.) For all the slicing and dicing of the editing, narrative momentum grinds to a trudge after the synthetic spectacle of the capital’s undoing. Bar one careering helicopter chase, Najafi and his quartet of screenwriters haven’t drawn up many action set pieces that extend beyond Butler lustily cracking skulls and hawking, in a semi-Scots brogue as American as apple pie, such apparently cheer-worthy lines as, “Get back to F—kheadistan or wherever it is you’re from.”
There may well be viewers receptive to this ugly brand of reactionary fear-mongering, which — thanks to a release date postponed from last October — can claim accidental topicality in the wake of November’s horrific Paris attacks. But that’s not to credit a scrap of cultural or political perspicacity to a film in which seasoned White House advisors observe with wonder that a massive terrorist strike on the U.K. is “all over social media too.” A film this incurious about the world it demolishes is perhaps smarter when it plays dumb, though even at its most purely physical, “London Has Fallen” remains short on style, rhythm or even tacky formal bravado: Ed Wild’s widescreen lensing, often swamped in all that translucent-looking effects work, trades in smeary shades of steel, while the marching-band thrum of Trevor Morris’s score steers sternly clear of memorable riffs.
For better or worse, it says much about the remit of “London Has Fallen” that a film starring such potentially fascinating thesps as Freeman, Eckhart and Leo permits its most fully realized performance to be given by Butler — nothing if not a committed kicker of ass, even as his 2016 filmography, still sweat-drenched from the debatable exertions of “Gods of Egypt,” perversely races itself to the bottom. What moments of conviction this silly-yet-cynical pic has belong to him, albeit usually in service of its most vacantly chest-beating sentiments. “Assholes like you have been trying to kill us for a long time,” he growls to one villain-by-numbers, “but in a thousand years we’ll still be here.” With any luck, this franchise will not.