You can say this much for London Has Fallen: it’s exactly the sequel one would expect to Olympus Has Fallen, the White House takeover actioner in which impossibly effective Secret Service agent Mike Banning (Gerard Butler) at one point literally beats a North Korean enemy to death with a bust of Abraham Lincoln. Yeah, remember that?
Like its predecessor, the new pic is jingoistic propaganda for the post-9/11 era, an ugly cocktail of mind-numbing action and miasmic xenophobia that serves no purpose other than to entertain domestic audiences by touting American greatness and fanning the flames of (this time) anti-Middle Eastern sentiment. Also like its predecessor, but perhaps more noticeably in the aftermath of shattering terrorist attacks in Paris and Beirut as well as the troubling rise of ISIS, it has absolutely no good reason to exist.
In fact, the only areas in which London differs from the last entry in this misbegotten, borderline-pornographic series are its switched-up setting – a decimated London instead of a decimated D.C. – and direction – by Babak Najafi, who maintains Olympus helmer Antoine Fuqua’s fetishization of brutal, retaliatory bloodletting but not a lick of his knack for tension-building (aka, the only thing that made Olympus even slightly bearable). Both changes render London Has Fallen an even more deeply disgusting, dulling, and disconcerting actioner than Olympus, especially when paired with the perpetuation of that film’s deceptively insidious fuck-yeah-America attitude.
Where to start with this flag-waving fiasco of writing, directing, acting, and ideology? The scare-mongering premise, which is shockingly half-baked and badly executed even for this kind of movie, sets the tone – after the death of the British P.M., the world’s leaders gather in London to pay their respects, only to find themselves snared in a deadly trap once almost every seemingly innocuous bystander in the city pulls out a gun (or a bomb, or a grenade launcher) and gets to blowing the dignitaries to bloody bits. How MI5, MI6, or any copper worth a dime could have possibly missed such a massive operation, which amounts to an enemy army infiltrating all corners of law enforcement then storming the streets of London, is a plot point London Has Fallen seems content to answer with the suggestion that no one outside the American military industrial complex ever really knows what they’re doing.
Of course, it falls to Banning and his seemingly endless barrage of bullets to save the day – as well as the life of U.S. President Benjamin Asher (Aaron Eckhart), who’s caught up in the mayhem and specifically targeted for a YouTube execution by the terrorists. There’s a type of audience member out there who might see a Middle Eastern (duh) villain languorously sliding a sword along the captive Asher’s shoulders and giddily shiver at such “topicality.” But hopefully the majority will feel their stomachs drop out at a Hollywood action blockbuster taking its cues from the very real, very scary Islamic State (and its executions of American photojournalist James Foley and British aid worker David Haines, among far too many others) for the sake of a few cheap thrills. It’s a despicably insensitive visual for the film to linger on.
The sensible majority of audiences should also take issue with the fact that the villains this time around are under-developed Middle Eastern militants (serving an arms dealer radicalized after his daughter and family were obliterated in a drone strike on her wedding day) who, by virtue of lacking a single other distinguishing trait, become representative of the falsehood that all Middle Easterners are secretly out for Westerners’ blood. As Banning and Asher run through the streets of London, dodging enemies, the would-be hero even barks at one point to “assume they’re all terrorist assholes” until proven otherwise, or something equally abhorrent. And later, he yells, “Go back to Fuckheadistan, or wherever the hell you’re from!” Diplomacy at its finest, gentlemen.
Adding to the sense of complete and utter revulsion that comes from watching Banning stab, slice, and shoot his way to safety is how fixated London Has Fallen seems on his opponents’ suffering. Heads explode at close range. Knives are slowly buried in soldiers’ backs, then twisted to elicit blood-curdling screams. Waves of viscera rain down during the heavier-duty sequences. And Banning is at the center of it all, finding grim pleasure and a dimwitted one-liner in each and every kill (“Fuck me? Fuck YOU” *separates enemy’s head from body*).
This kind of torture-porny, massive-retaliation narrative – wherein an all-American hero is suddenly attacked and fights back with righteous, anything-goes fury – needs to be retired, effective immediately. London Has Fallen never feels faker than when it has Banning deliver an impassioned defense of moral strength and bravery in the age of global terror, condemning the terrorists’ murderous rampage, shortly before killing approximately 50 of them in the next few scenes. Such is the double standard of “patriotic” action-adventures like this: we’re meant to cheer as some American pulls a trigger to launch drone strikes that completely obliterate a Yemeni neighborhood, but then view the perpetrators of similar violence in the Western sphere, spurred to action by those very same drone strikes, as cold-blooded monsters deserving of a slow and cruel death.
Maybe there’s a longer cut of London Has Fallen in the paper bin at Lionsgate that comments more responsibly on the suspension of accountability inherent in drone warfare, or on the cyclical nature of terrorism as it pertains to U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East. But there’s nothing in the finished cut that suggests anyone involved would even be able to point out the region on a map, let alone comment on the roots of its chaos. What’s more likely is that, in the wake of multiple Islamic terror attacks that still haunt and horrify us today, the writers thought watering the rich culture and history of the Middle East down to a handful of cunning and cruel radicals (albeit ones oddly susceptible to Banning’s “run in and stab everyone and don’t get shot” approach to combat) would play very well with bloodthirsty audiences, some bringing their own Islamophobic views into the theater to begin with. It’s terrifying to think those scribes might be right – one lady behind this critic took to happily murmuring “Yes, kill them all” whenever Banning pumped an enemy full of lead. Lovely.