Some movies challenge audiences with an ultimatum, separating those who will revel in its brand of spectacle from those who will cringe. "London Has Fallen," the sequel to the 2013 White House under siege thriller "Olympus Has Fallen," offers that point about 10 minutes in, when the whole of London is under overwhelming attack by a nameless terrorist group that takes out a panoply of world leaders. It's a conspiracy so large and lethal it's inconceivable. It's an early action sequence so flush with carnage, blood, and cruelty it's breathtaking. It's a get on board or GTFO moment. And it told me early on that "London Has Fallen" was going to be a rough ride for me.
Gerard Butler returns as Army Ranger turned secret service agent Mike Banning, who is assigned to protect President Benjamin Asher (Aaron Eckhart) come hell or wave upon wave of terrorist attacks. The pair go to London to attend the funeral of the UK's Prime Minister, who died suspiciously young of a heart attack. When explosions and sniper fire begin to take down the president's peers, Banning leaps into action, dragging POTUS through the ruins of London to keep him out of the hands of a vengeance-seeking arms dealer who wants Asher assassinated live on the internet, for the whole world to witness.
Butler and Eckhart have a solid chemistry that sells their brotherly bond, and makes for an engaging odd couple. One's a dignified president who'd rather be killed by his guard than made a murderous mockery on Youtube. The other is a take-no-prisoners no-nonsense killing machine, whose quips are comically crass and straightforward, like "It's a clusterfuck, sir." Butler's an old pro at selling fight choreography and less than sparkling one-liners, so he makes the script (composed by a small army of credited writers Creighton Rothenberger, Katrin Benedikt, Christian Gudegast and Chad St. John) work overall.
Though heralded "Olympus Has Fallen" helmer Antoine Fuqua could not be coaxed back for this sequel, Iranian director Babak Najafi makes for a stellar replacement. With action scenes that are generous in headshots and a tone that is dedicatedly gritty, Najafi stays true to the world Fuqua's film set up. "London Has Fallen" relishes its hard-R rating with a wealth of graphic violence and an infinity of f-bombs, most of which come during the Scottish actor's big climactic monologue about the might of the U.S.A.
Fans of the first film will cheer for "London Has Fallen," which gives the same brand of hard-hitting action and unabashed nationalism. As someone who preferred "White House Down," "London Has Fallen" was not my cup of tea, to put it lightly.
The catastrophic catalyst that hurls Asher and Banning into this London war zone streaked with bloodthirsty terrorists struck me as an absurd ask on the audience's suspension of disbelief. The realistic tone conflicted with its convoluted plot. And while I love my horror gory, the trail of broken necks and gutted bellies that Banning leaves through London's cobblestone streets actually made me physically ill. The barrage of bullets gave me a headache. And the half-assed messages were purely perplexing.
"London Has Fallen" sets up its villain Aamir Barkawi (Alon Aboutboul) with a brief scene that cements his malevolence. He instructs his son/second-in-command (Waleed Zuaiter) to not only kill a traitor, but also the man's entire family. "Vengeance," he sneers, "is always best profound and absolute." Then the two enter the wedding ceremony of Barkawi's daughter, which is promptly bombed to oblivion by an American drone strike. I expected this clear parallel to set up a moment of realization from the American president about how his tactics are uncomfortably close to that of an infamous terrorist. But nope! Instead, Asher proclaims in a scene about parenting the importance of "The Golden Rule" (do unto others as you would have them do unto you), while promoting the contradicting parenting maxim "Do what I say not what I do."
Political paradoxes aside, I realized something about "London Has Fallen"s zealous violence and brutality. It wasn't its graphic nature or the bloodlust of American Alpha Male Banning that bothered me. It was that these elements were embedded in such a grimly realistic context. Sure, the plot is absurd, but the tone is far less cartoonish than say, "Deadpool," a hard-R violence fest I adored. Wielding a large, serrated knife with an unhinged grin, Banning seemed the live-action version of broad-shouldered badass Brock Samson from "The Venture Bros.," whose been known to slaughter in the nude just for funsies. As much I love that show (Go Team Venture!), the fun of this kind of vicious escapist fantasy is lost for me when the carnage and body count feel this real.
Ultimately, "London Has Fallen" is action-packed with massive battle scenes, dizzying casualties and brutality and violence. But mileage may vary.
"London Has Fallen" opens Friday.