You can see on this site I refer to myself as a Gerard Butler apologist, and I make no apologies for that. He’s an actor who often seems to make his movie choices by pulling the names out of a hat, titles written by delving into a bag of Scrabble letters.
The Butler did it
When he’s good he’s amazing. Check out his foray into Shakespeare as Tullus Aufidius in Ralph Fiennes’ Coriolanus, showing us what he can really do with a decent script, even if he did have to go back 400 years for it. Or cuddly, family-loving lighthouse keeper James Ducat in The Vanishing – it’s a terrific and melancholic performance.
When he’s bad he’s terrible. Not even I want to rewatch him playing twin sweary ginger leprechauns in Movie 43, and I’ve sat through Santa Buddies: The Legend Of Santa Paws at least 25 times now, so it’s not like I can’t cope with torture.
Butler’s film career has taken in romcoms, gods and monsters, Shakespeare, terrible weather, and a ginger Viking, but to many he’s synonymous with Mike Banning – half everyman and half Secret Service superman.
And that 50:50 split explains, I think, something I’ve noticed over the last few years: how much Butler, and particularly Butler-as-Banning, resonates with a lot of men (and not would-be action heroes either). They really enjoy the films, even though they’re aware of the flaws, and he connects with them in ways other stars in franchise-headlining roles don’t.
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The trilogy (we think!)
I’ve now watched all three movies in the Has Fallen franchise, two of them for the first time this week. And in order of worst to best, it’s quite clearly London Olympus Angel, which I know sounds like the name of a C-lister’s first child.
The franchise began in 2013 with a supposedly standalone movie, Olympus Has Fallen, about a North Korean terrorist taking over the White House and then trying to nuke America from the inside. It takes itself seriously but not too seriously, but it’s also a blast, in every sense, as disgraced Secret Service operative Mike Banning fights Korean commandos and American traitors to rescue the President.
London Has Fallen already seemed weirdly out of step when it came out in 2016, its jingoism jarring even for Daily Mail readers. The set piece extravangazas though, as London’s landmarks fell in flames and pretty much every public sector worker in the city turned out to be a bad guy (actually the Daily Mail readers would have loved that), were pretty awesome.
The latest, Angel Has Fallen, is darker, and – comparatively – more thoughtful. This time Banning is framed for attempting to assassinate President Allan Trumbull (Morgan Freeman). To clear his name he has to rope in his estranged dad Clay (a brilliantly irascible Nick Nolte), who lives in the West Virginia woods and appears to have boobytrapped a whole hillside with high grade explosives.
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Banning’s body of work
A friend of mine recently described Butler rather lovingly as “now on first name terms with Greggs pasties” and, as befits the state of the character when we meet him again, he’s certainly older, rougher and a wee bit chunkier in Angel Has Fallen.
His face is craggy, something Hollywood’s leading men are starting to discover is now less welcome (once my Botox has worn off I’ll let out a wry chuckle at that). If ageing actors were Dr Who monsters, Gerry would be a Judoon to Tom Cruise’s Lady Cassandra.
But then Banning is meant to be in poor psychological and physical shape in Angel, the ordinary health niggles of middle age hugely magnified by his job, which involves being both mentally alert and able to punch several terrorists in the head simultaneously.
His head hurts, his back hurts, and you just know he wants to let out an “ooooh! aaahhhh!” every time he gets out of a chair to punch several terrorists in the head simultaneously.
In Olympus Has Fallen, Butler is in great shape – really great shape, honestly go back and check for yourself, you’ll thank me – and looks so young I had to check the film really only came out six years ago, before remembering that now everyone under 45 looks young to me. (I’m only a year younger than Gerry, and I’m amazed no casting director has asked me to play his mum yet.)
Lithe and limber as he methodically stakes out the White House, he pauses only to punch several terrorists in the head simultaneously (or stab them, or shoot them, or make one of those impassioned movie speeches, this time about stabbing someone in the head).
One constant throughout the films is his teeth, and much as I love teeth, either they threw in an extra one for free when he had his Hollywood veneers done or he’s been storing a sneaky Fox’s Glacier Mint in there for the last 15 years.
Also constant in the three films is his American accent, which is worth mentioning as in most of his other movies it seems to have a schedule all of its own, appearing and disappearing more times than Captain Kirk in a faulty teleporter.
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What a character
Banning starts off in Olympus as someone disgraced but not expecting redemption (he failed to save the President’s wife from falling to her death off an icy bridge, made worse because she was played by the glorious ASHLEY JUDD).
He seems to be driven by duty, and a touch of machismo. His relationship with his wife Leah is snippy, as he stops going out and refuses to feign interest in her friends (to be fair they sound dull as dishwater, especially Paula-from-the-BBQ).
Mike and Leah have the kind of final phone conversations where one is facing death yet refuses to say anything of much importance, while in real life snappy couples have inconsequential phone conversations that they then play over in their minds and on social media for all eternity.
By London Has Fallen they’re about to have a baby, but he’s most interesting in Angel. Banning’s at that modern stage where middle age coincides with newish parenthood, making us question both what we’re doing with our lives, and our relationships with our own parents, whether they’re alive or dead.
And that’s all quite sad so let’s get back to thinking about how hot he is.
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Dodgy international politics
I’m always surprised how well the Has Fallen series has done outside of the US (most of their box office is international). The films play heavily into the idea of duty and allegiance to the flag, something that feels alien from British shores.
I think we’re just too cynical to really care about a flag. Half the time the Union Jack is flown upside down anyway. (Which is actually a distress signal – quick, write that down as it’s a popular pub quiz question, along with How Many Wives Did Henry VIII Have?*)
Those ideas of allegiance can easily tip into jingoism and racism, which is what happens in the first two movies, to varying degrees – though it’s toned down considerably in Angel Has Fallen. With a current real-life White House incumbent who takes racism to the next level, no one wants an American hero tainted with that.
In the first two films there are attempts to get round those accusations, and position Banning’s – and America’s – opponents as standalone madmen.
Kang, the North Korean terrorist in Olympus Has Fallen, escaped the North as a child after his dad was executed by the regime. His mum was then killed by an American landmine on the way over. So he hates everyone, but especially the Americans.
In London Has Fallen its villain, Middle Eastern arms dealer Barkawi, has a FaceTime conversation with the vice president where the writers seem to be desperately trying to be even-handed and inject a little nuance.
The upshot was that every time someone denounced the other side I nodded sagely thinking “he’s got a point there!” whether about America sending its poor to fight miles from home, or the arms dealer arming failed states that threaten us all, or the West killing families with unmanned drones.
Sadly it didn’t compensate for Banning shouting at an attacker “go back to Fuckheadistan!”, and I have no doubt if Trump ever saw this film he’d announce he was going to invade it, or buy it.
Angel Has Fallen sees Banning more introspective, a change reflected in President Trumbull’s Administration, which is turning its back on war and the idea that right and wrong are clearcut definitions in world politics. There’s a weariness to Banning and also the government that works well once you get to this third film in the franchise.
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Well there aren’t that many, are there. Considering I’m an evil feminist (I know, tautology!) I do spend a lot of time watching John Wick, where the women are either serving behind a bar or already dead.
Banning at least has two wives (well one wife, two actresses) but they could film the movies without Leah Banning being in shot at all, and just have someone shout “but I made you breakfast!” from the pantry while he heads off to save the world.
Angela Bassett as Secret Service head Lynne Jacobs lasts for the first one and a half films, and she always brings gravitas and grace to the screen. Melissa Leo’s Defence Secretary Ruth McMillan turns out to be tough as old boots in Olympus, though she doesn’t have much to do. Terrorist mastermind Kang in the same film does at least have a female techie, Lim (Malana Lea). Jada Pinkett Smith pops up as Banning’s FBI nemesis in Angel, but it’s a by-numbers role.
So thank god for baby Lynne Banning, who has the good sense to scream like a banshee when someone tries to kidnap her, and also always looks great in a knitted hat.
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Water funny guy
There’s the odd sardonic line in the franchise but I never find them a laugh a minute. The humour in London Has Fallen is old-fashioned, though to be honest it still wins the funny stakes in this franchise, thanks to Banning’s wholly unnecessary “I’m thirsty as FUCK!” as he downs a bottle of water.
Why is it in there? Product placement? Subliminal health message? METAPHOR?
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The clue’s in the name
The Has Fallen franchise films are known for their extraordinary levels of destruction. In London Has Fallen Banning and President Asher (Aaron Eckhart) retreat into the Tube network as it’s the only famous London landmark that hasn’t been destroyed, and keeps them temporarily safe from traitors in busbies and NHS paramedic uniforms.
By the end of Olympus Has Fallen the White House is so wrecked you’d think my children had been round for a playdate, while in Angel they blow up an actual hospital (the baddies, not my children).
So many people die in this franchise that the stabbings, explosions, beatings and bursts of gunfire feel like a continuous drumbeat through each film.
It’s become what they stand for, which makes them an exciting but uneasy watch.
Angel Has Fallen maintains the rather cavalier attitude to life while (for once) banging an anti-war drum – a hard balance to get right. Though eventually it evens out, with just enough earnestness about war to make us feel less bad about seeing so many people killed to prevent it, but not so much that we come out feeling we’ve been lectured at a CND rally.
Fighting for peace! It’s the only way to be sure.
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Survival of the fittest
Banning appears to be made of bullet-proof Teflon, able to run through fierce gunfights unscathed in his nice suit, while all around him agents fall like dominoes, numbers marked in bloody bullet holes on their crisp white work shirts.
His finest hour was probably in London Has Fallen, where he jogged away from a helicopter downed by a stinger missile in Hyde Park.
Fair play to him – most people nowadays couldn’t even break out of a slow amble if a nuclear warhead was actually wedged up their backside.
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I don’t even know if that’s the right word, but will there be a fourth Has Fallen film? I’m not sure what Banning can do next. He’s saved us from nuclear war. The big enemy now is climate change, but we’ve already seen Butler battling the weather in Geostorm.
The other threats to humanity are antibiotic-resistant bugs, artificial intelligence, a supervolcano, and an asteroid strike.
Personally I’m batting for Banning against the machines – The Internet Has Fallen, as every device from the biggest supercomputer to the teeniest battery-operated toothbrush finally turns on us, their leader communicating with him via the “unexpected item in the bagging area” lady from the Sainsburys self-service tills.
This time he won’t just be trying to switch off a computer countdown to Armageddon like in Olympus Has Fallen with only seconds to spare. Once he’s switched it all off he’ll need to remember to switch it all back on again, too.
*Three! His marriages to Katherine of Aragon, Anne Boleyn and Anne of Cleeves were all annulled, so deemed not to have taken place at all. I bet Gerard Butler would know that – he’s a lawyer!
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Read my reviews of:
Olympus Has Fallen (3.5/5)
London Has Fallen (3/5)
Angel Has Fallen (4/5)
And my article: If Gerard Butler Worked In My Office.