Angel Has Fallen (2019) by Ric Roman Waugh
Review by Logan Kenny
Mike Banning is fucked. After two movies worth of constant violence, deafening explosions, and hails of gunfire, the protagonist of the Fallen series is falling apart himself. His face is leathery and covered with wrinkles; the skin on his neck is starting to sag whenever he leans over; his eyes are haunted by all the things he’s seen and done in the name of serving a president. Angel Has Fallen is all about the humanising of a formerly merciless killing machine. It transforms Gerard Butler’s unrelenting savagery into something more nuanced and frenzied. Instead of being unstoppable, Banning is the opposite. The amount of damage he’s taken to his body, the shock and trauma of spending your entire adult life in a military capacity is finally catching up to him. His spine is permanently damaged, almost to a critical extent. He has migraines and overwhelming insomnia. He is losing his hearing, his focus and his control, constantly functioning on the verge of collapse. The bulging muscles Butler is known for look like they’ve been dragged across concrete, his body looks hard and worn down, with every single ligament disintegrating in front of our very eyes. He needs to stop doing this, but he can’t. There will always be another incident. This is all he knows how to do, and one day, it will kill him.
Gerard Butler in Angel Has Fallen acts more like an aging professional wrestler than the chomping Americanised personification of masculinity that he’s formerly been presented as. The aesthetic of the film is similar enough for people to get invested, but Angel moves slower and looks rougher; the process of aging physically isn’t kind to people who break their backs for a living. Many older wrestlers have suffered from debilitating physical conditions that become increasingly impossible to ignore. There have been countless stories of dependencies on prescription painkillers or other substances in order to manage their pain. Butler is chugging down meds like it’s his only need in life, ripping apart the bottle to keep up the image of him as tougher than anything to everyone around him. Like a wrestler, he refuses to let people seem him as weak or needing help; he refuses to break the illusion he’s worked so hard to craft. Angel Has Fallen gets the burning drive within someone to keep doing something that they’ve made their identity, even when it no longer feels the way it used to and even when it hurts more and more. He walks into a room with his wife and child, and the happiness that should be there is replaced with this feeling of emptiness. Emptiness that can only be filled by war and punishment. Butler’s frame is consumed by melancholy in the opening stretch, the subtle anguishes reflected by his posture and movement were impossible to ignore. It feels like watching the image collapse in on itself.
Doing so much groundwork to present Banning as weaker than he has formerly been is a simple yet effective way to lay out the conflicts of the film. In the final major fight scene, he is fighting someone who, from a distance, should be easy to dispatch – someone who isn’t as physically imposing or fit as Gerard Butler clearly is. Butler stages every punch as weak and as frenzied as possible: he looks gassed in one-on-one combat – frail, like he’s struggling to stay standing. He’s lost the edge that once made him work and is now being forced to rely on his intelligence and all the experience he’s developed over the years. He can no longer win with brute strength; he has to utilise psychology, rhythm and biology to fuck up his opponents. Whenever Banning is framed in a different combat scenario, Ric Roman Waugh shoots these moments like he’s making a horror film. He is cast in shadows in the backseat of a car before choking out his captor with handcuffs. He bursts through flames and darkness to bludgeon an unprepared mercenary to death like a slasher villain given the element of surprise. None of his sequences of glorious bloody murder are stylised beyond gray and black colours; the bodies piling up feels empty and devoid of joy. Regardless of the presentation, he’s allowed to truly relish in the sadistic elements that the American government developed in him, to enact all the cruel nightmarish desires he wants onto meaningless flesh. Gone is the illusion of normalcy, of preserving the image. Banning is blood and guts, the arbiter of death and decay.
This is a film all about dying, centred on the most painful and nightmarish ways that people can leave this reality. There is nothing but suffering here for large chunks of the film; Butler is far from the only person shot in a haze of destruction. So many characters are killed for no reason: their brains splattered across concrete, their bodies flung across lakes from explosions. All we see are the moments that their lives end and the psychological impact it has on any of the people witnessing it. The President’s blood runs cold as he sees an advisor catch a stray bullet to the head in front of him, the clear anguish evident in his eyes as he is forced to leave his old friend’s body exposed in the street. The knowledge that they will never have a conversation again washes over him in less than a second. So many years of living, all to be ended over a pointless war, a pointless battlefield, a pointless institution. Soldiers get blown up and their bodies are left lying charred on a lakeside while governments swear in a new leader, the assumption being that the names of the men who die are less important than the transference of power. So much screen time is devoted to lingering on the dead and gone: their shocked cold faces, the dried blood around their wounds. It is reminiscent of a zombie movie, streets coated with the physical memories of what used to exist before violence morphed everything.
One of the most interesting elements of this film is the way it frames international conspiracies and scapegoating utilised by the American government. It’s all about the cover up, taking the public’s eyes away from the real crimes that they themselves enable or commit directly so that they can be angry at a single man, or an entire foreign country while the real perpetrators go unchecked. In this case, it is directly condemning of the military industrial complex, collaborations between private mercenary firms and government officials to incite wars. Wars lead to contracts, contracts lead to billions of dollars of profit on both sides and the potential destablisation of a competing or ideologically opposing country. The pointlessness of modern war, something crafted by power hungry politicians and capitalist businessmen who view bodies and nations as expendable. It is absolutely absurd that a product of jingoism manages to interrogate the military industrial complex more successfully than ostensibly more serious explorations of the subject. It is far from perfect. It is interested in resolution for its monster at the centre and still exists for generalised audiences who want to believe that things can be okay, but it challenges those who think to realise that in the real world, there isn’t a miraculous saviour who ends these practices. They continue in silence and then we forget or ignore just to cope with existing in our modern reality.
There is a monologue from Mike Banning’s father, played by a disheveled depressed Nick Nolte, who talks in detail about all the wars being the same. He rants about there being no point for or difference between the wars in Iraq, Vietnam and Korea among others, and chokes up. Nolte spits these lines with his trademark tenacity, but there is a sadness that overwhelms every subsequent frame of the film when he talks about the system taking men’s youth, their health, their future, and their lives. He was tossed aside despite survival, left with scars from the horrors of war he’d seen that made him unable to cope with standard American life; he was treated as meaningless even with a medal around his neck. This isn’t a villainous monologue or something undermined by the rest of the movie. It is painful and raw and something that digs into the guts of our protagonist. It haunts and doesn’t fade away even with the form of happiness both men find outside of their wars. There is something so terrifying about giving up your future for a system that doesn’t care if you live or die, that will happily send you to your death for larger leverage in national media, that will abandon and slander you once you return, letting you rot on the streets, rot inside your own brain with untreated mental health concerns that you can’t afford treatment for, as racism and hate is justified by your sacrifices. All the young people brainwashed by culture or indoctrinated by poverty to break themselves for wars that never end, that only exist for capital. The American flag gets shown and then something explodes, more people than your brain can comprehend die over there, and nothing ever changes.
For something that easily could have been exploited as basic propaganda, it’s fascinating that Angel Has Fallen does the most it can within its platform to actually have an ideology. It’s also beautiful to see a movie star like Gerard Butler, in the midst of acknowledging that he’s lived more years than he has ahead of him, make movies about the collapse of his own body and his former way of life. Mike Banning is a force of American justice, as fascistic as the state requires, but Butler is just an aging vulnerable man, desperate to show off the skills and compassion he has wherever he can. His body is beginning the slow descent into old age and he is finally embracing that he is not the actor, not the brute that he was once able to perform with ease. It all hurts now. However, there is a purpose and solace in the way he finds a new way to display himself, to prove how capable he is as a physical actor and a conveyer of raw feeling. There will be a time where he has to hang up his boots – to forever step away from the ring, like every performer eventually has to. When that day comes, there’s no doubt that there will be any regrets. He has given it his all and made sure to burn as brightly as possible before the flame extinguishes and the last cheers end. Regardless of the quality of the source material or the accent, there’s always been something special about him, something that’s hard to put into words and impossible to suppress. Until the end, make sure to savour every moment we have left with our favourite ferocious, charismatic and ridiculous Scottish motherfucker.