The “Has Fallen” series, “Olympus,” “London” and now, “Angel Has Fallen,” is a curiously enduring franchise. It seems the character of Mike Banning, a foul-mouthed Secret Service agent played with a lumpy gruffness by Gerard Butler, has filled the void of the Everyman action hero, displaced by those with superpowers and elegant martial arts skills. Mike’s just a guy with a wife and kid who happens to be incredibly enthusiastic about stabbing people. And if there’s one thing we’ve learned in this series, it’s always bring Mike to a knife fight.
In the “Has Fallen” mythology, Mike has become a cipher, a character around whom a filmmaker can project the paranoid political fantasy of the week. In “Olympus Has Fallen,” Antoine Fuqua threw him into “Die Hard in the White House” against North Korea, while Babak Najafi plunked him into an international terrorist attack by a nefarious Middle Eastern group in “London Has Fallen.” So naturally, the only place to go now is home. “Angel” director and co-writer Ric Roman Waugh plops Mike into his own “Three Days of the Condor,” a conspiracy thriller in which the U.S. government has turned on him.
This time, it’s our hero who has fallen, the “guardian angel” to President Trumbull (Morgan Freeman, the only returning costar). After a drone attack on the president during a fishing trip, Banning wakes up cuffed to a hospital bed, framed to take the fall for the attempted hit. Indicted and imprisoned, then kidnapped by the very mercenaries who did try to kill the president, Banning has no choice but to go rogue (as per usual).
The tone of “Angel” is far more somber than the wisecracking “Olympus” or the frothing, jingoistic “London.” The weight makes the film strangely dull at times. (How can a scene of Butler crashing a big rig into a tree be so flat?) But some moments in this outsize take on “The Fugitive” hit a real nerve, such as a shootout in an office building where young bearded white men in tactical gear pump thousands of rounds into drywall and office furniture. Banning is our fantasy for those very real scenarios: a strong, resourceful, yet exceedingly normal man of action.
Waugh brings a chaotic, vertiginous style to “Angel,” potentially the best-looking of all the films, though it’s still riddled with unfortunately sketchy green screen. The director asserts Banning’s relatability and his vulnerability visually. He places the audience within Mike’s subjectivity during the action scenes, looking down the barrel of his gun as if in a first-person shooter game, the sound dropping out to a muffled hum whenever he gets his bell rung.
What’s truly daring, however, is that the script (by Waugh with co-writers Robert Mark Kamen and Matt Cook) actually addresses all the brain injuries Mike must have suffered in the gleefully unhinged splatterfests of the first two films. He’s been scamming doctors for pain pills and even admits he’s got a lot to address, personally (but in, you know, a very tough, masculine way). Mike Banning going to therapy? The mind reels.
At the heart of the “Has Fallen” franchise is the affection between men, and Butler always shares the best chemistry with his male costars. In “Angel,” that spark comes from Butler’s scenes with Nick Nolte, as his father, Clay, a veteran living off the grid. It’s Clay’s older, wiser perspective that pushes Banning to take stock of his life. And surprisingly, the tough guy is willing to grow and change, along with the franchise itself, even if it is as goofy and violent as it always has been.
Katie Walsh is a Tribune News Service film critic.
Running time: 2 hours
Playing: In general release