1. Preheat opening scene with sweeping, dramatic orchestral score
2. Spread big-name actors as protagonists, pit them against terrorist baddies
3. Mix in C4, automatic weapons, and car chases until budget is depleted
4. Let chaos ensue
London Has Fallen follows Hollywood's classic recipe for surefire box-office gold. Its an action movie's action movie: rather than develop a plot, it detonates a city. Breakneck chase scenes and big, big booms are meant to put bums in the seats and dough in the coffers, not impress the critics. Directed by Babak Najafi -- a newcomer to the American film scene -- Fallen is undeniably entertaining. But the film half-heartedly attempts to rise above its genre, and ineffectively pairs destruction and emotion. It does more harm than good to a movie best left emotionally shallow.
The movie opens with the unexpected death of Britain's prime minister. Said to be an accident, his death triggers a hastily arranged funeral, which will feature a who's who of world leaders. Among the dignitaries is U.S. President Benjamin Asher (Aaron Eckhart), accompanied by his loyal Secret Service agent, Mike Banning (Gerard Butler). Soon after the pair arrive in London, violence erupts. Landmarks explode, heads of state expire, and the city, as promised, falls to disarray. There is a massive terrorist conspiracy in motion, and before long, President Asher and Agent Banning are the last men standing.
Fallen is strongest when Asher and Banning are fighting to stay alive. By mixing score, cinematography, CGI and practical effects into his orgy of violence, Najafi pieces together a patchwork of absolutely delightful mayhem. His characters fend off the terrorists by firing witty one-liners and thousands of bullets. They are shallow and underdeveloped, and they bludgeon their way from fight scene to fight scene. The special effects and soaring soundtrack keep the flow moving in place of a well-defined storyline. But this isn't an arthouse drama: its a big-budget, action-packed powder keg. I would argue that a movie such as this one, which feature explosions as the stars, need not follow the storytelling mold to be considered a success.
I wish Najafi felt the same. Instead of filling the airspace of his metaphorical powder-keg with yet more black powder, he injects emotional development and attempts to build cogent character arcs. The result is not pretty.
Najafi fails most spectacularly with his portrayal of Agent Banning. With a baby on the way, Banning is hesitant to keep his position in the Secret Service. He wants to be a family man, he is done protecting the leader of the Free World. Banning struggles to balance the two sides of himself. Or rather, Najafi struggles to reconcile the two sides of his main character. As terrorist strikes envelop London, Banning's backstory is buried in the ensuing rubble. He devolves into a one-dimensional killing machine with a single purpose: protect the president. The sudden character pivot is logical; Banning is a Secret Service agent, and carries a responsibility for Asher. But the absolute disregard Najafi shows for Banning's initial backstory begs the question: Why have the backstory anyway? By establishing -- and abandoning -- the family man persona, Najafi makes his protagonist's story unnecessarily convoluted.
Najafi's feeble attempts at emotional manipulation further dilute the film's shaky identity. In one tearjerker scene, Secret Service Director Lynne Jacobs (Angela Basset) is impaled on helicopter shrapnel. As the camera draws in on her shivering form, she grabs Agent Banning. "Do me a favor," she tells him. "Stay alive, you gotta see your kid." Jacobs asks a moment of reflection in an otherwise breakneck plot: it feels completely out of place. Before the audience has time to process the emotional significance of Jacobs' dying breath, a flock of terrorists on dirt bikes rip onto the scene. The moment is lost amid the roar of their automatic rifles.
Najafi's most egregious cinema sin, however, is his pragmatic decision to feature terrorism as a the central plot device. His villains are Pakistani arms dealers who hope to make millions by destabilizing global politics. Despite this economic incentive, the villain's true motives can easily be misconstrued as religious. The terrorists' ultimate goal is to behead President Asher on live television, an obvious play on Islamic State-style executions. Though effective, it is an unoriginal and somewhat tasteless poly to keep the audience engaged.
Action movies are defined by the look of their explosions and the feel of their fight scenes. Here, Fallen does not disappoint: its cinematography is stunning. There are drone shots, dashboard shots, dolly shots, and more. The camera is the audience, and the audience is everywhere. Bullets, mortar fire, and motorcycles whiz on and off screen, all the while looking beautiful.
Veteran actor Morgan Freeman, who plays Vice President Allan Trumbull, offers Fallen's most redeeming performance. Though his character's dialogue is atrocious, and his scenes underwhelming, Freeman deftly controls the reins of Fallen's poorly-developed story. Trumbull spends much of the film tucked away in the White House Situation Room, narrating the progression of the film's lead characters. Freeman is the perfect choice for this role, and he confidently guides the audience through the lurching plot. Where showing fails, telling thrives. In this 100-minute mess, Freeman is the only one who understands what is going on.