“Angel Has Fallen” marks the third time that Gerard Butler, as the Secret Service agent and scowling samurai cowboy Mike Banning, has had to rescue the President of the United States from an international conspiracy so cuckoo bananas that the movie barely expects you to believe it. (Actually, in the six years since this series launched, the bar for what people will believe has been lowered. For all I know, fans of the “Fallen” films think they’re based on true stories.) In “Olympus Has Fallen” (2013) and “London Has Fallen” (2016), the president was portrayed by Aaron Eckhart, who came off like a testy press secretary from the “West Wing” days. (Eckhart is a good actor with a terse appealing manner, but he’s not exactly presidential.) In “Angel Has Fallen,” the role of Leader of the Free World reverts back to Morgan Freeman, who has played it approximately 47 times — or, at least, it feels that way. Seeing him back in the Oval Office is as comfy and reassuring as slipping into a daydream where Barack Obama is still president.
Banning is now getting on a bit, suffering from chronic pain caused by a concussion and other woes he secretly medicates, lest anyone, from his wife (Piper Perabo) to the president, ask him to quit. He’s in line for the job of director of the Secret Service, but it’s a desk jockey gig. Butler’s squint tells you how he feels about that one.
The plot — which is to say, the plot against the president — is, once again, a violently overwrought confection of “topical” comic-strip ludicrousness; that’s the DNA of the “Fallen” series. Yet when you’re watching a big-budget B-movie, there’s good preposterous and there’s bad preposterous. Good preposterous is the setup of “Angel Has Fallen”: Banning, the most loyal and trusted agent of President Allan Trumball (Freeman), is out guarding him on a winter afternoon fishing excursion when a vehicle pulls up in the woods and launches what looks like a flock of black birds. They are drones, equipped with smart bombs and computerized facial-recognition software, and as they fly low and target their prey, the explosions pile up with a satisfyingly surgical but relentless precision. In minutes, the 18 Secret Service agents hovering on the shore are all dead. And Mike? He’s alive because the drones purposefully avoided him.
He pulls Trumball under the water, and the result of this action is that the president is soon laying in a coma in a Washington, D.C., hospital. Mike, after a brief spell of unconsciousness himself, escapes, and it doesn’t take long for the film to tell us what we already know: that he was spared by the bad guys so they could make him the fall guy.
With its over-the-top premise set in motion, “Angel Has Fallen” — as in, the president’s guardian angel is out of commission — gets down to the business of asking us to suspend our disbelief in far less entertaining ways. If you want to know what bad preposterous looks like (or, to be generous, let’s call it mediocre preposterous), check out the scenes in which Mike reunites with his father, Clay Banning, a grizzled Vietnam veteran living off the grid in a West Virginia shack, like a cross between the Unabomber and the most cliché crazy war vet you’ve ever seen. There’s a certain amusement in watching the 78-year-old, scraggly-white-bearded Nick Nolte rasp out survivalist hokum like “You stay attached to their tentacles, they own you for life!” Yet one of the upshots of a movie like “Angel Has Fallen” is that we’re becoming a nation of closet militia fantasists. At the preview showing I attended, the audience applauded after the scene in which Nolte detonates, by remote-control trigger, an unending wall of bombs he has rigged in the woods by his home. It looks as if he was waiting to be attacked by an army. (Mike’s predicament has justified his existence.)
Gerard Butler showed signs of becoming a more riveting actor in last year’s “Den of Thieves” (sharp dialogue becomes him), but “Angel Has Fallen” is yet another movie that turns him into a monosyllabic granite-souled neo-Bronson. It reduces him, in the process, to being a macho lox. As staged by director Ric Roman Waugh, the film’s hand-to-hand combat is so routine it’s deadening — and, for that matter, so is its assault-rifle-to-assault-rifle combat. At times, with Banning in the role of unjustly pursued renegade, the whole thing plays like a generic “Bourne” knockoff.
It has been made to look like Mike colluded with the Russians to assassinate the president (the proof is the $10 million payoff deposited in a private account in his name). That’s one of several pseudo-relevant tidbits the film tosses into the blender, along with the privatization of the defense industry and a vice president (Tim Blake Nelson, looking like a member of Herman’s Hermits) who’s more hawkish than his boss. Bad preposterous is watching the villain who orchestrated the whole thing bark out his psycho orders by placing a cell-phone call, with voice disguised, from a certain office. A place that’s equipped with one or two minor security systems. The film’s other heavy is played by an actor with a velvet manner who gets cast in this honorable-gent-who-turns-out-to-be-a-serpent role so often that his very presence, in a movie like this one, amounts to a spoiler.
It’s at around the time that President Trumball emerges from his coma that “Angel Has Fallen” loses what’s left of its brain. An FBI agent, played by Jada Pinkett Smith, has been trailing the truth, but now we’re supposed to believe that a conspiracy to remove the president, broadcast across global media, has failed to mobilize the nation’s defense machinery. The whole movie comes down to two S.W.A.T. teams facing off to the death; just when you’re sure that their combat can’t go on anymore, it stretches out for another 15 minutes. That’s bad preposterous, but maybe, for some, it can still work as an escape from the preposterous depths to which the real American presidency has fallen.