It’s not clear who, exactly, demanded a follow-up to 2013's Olympus Has Fallen, but we’ve got one anyway in the form of London Has Fallen. And now that it’s here, it’s still not clear why it exists. The lifeless, dimwitted retread is a soulless, shameless cash-in that lacks even the modest virtues of its predecessor.
Indeed, the movie is practically a step-by-step guide to how not to make an action movie, and it makes a mess of the tried-and-true formula that made the original so effective.
The rise of the "Die Hard on a ________" movie
London Has Fallen is essentially a siege movie, modeled after the greatest siege movie ever made: Die Hard.
But Die Hard isn't just a great siege movie, it’s one of the best action movies in the history of film — period. It's also a nexus point in the history of the action genre, as nearly every action movie that's come out since Die Hard's 1988 release owes that film a debt.
In some cases, that debt is small: In an era of muscle-bound uber-macho action heroes who looked and acted like human tanks, Die Hard — which starred a barefoot Bruce Willis as wisecracking New York cop John McClane — helped establish the fragile "regular guy" star as a viable action lead. The original Die Hard helped change the way we think about villains, as well: Every slickly dressed, well-coiffed, sneering European schemer follows from the precedent established by Alan Rickman’s Hans Gruber.
In other cases, the debt is rather large: Die Hard established the siege movie as a thriving subgenre within the action film category and inspired numerous imitators, most of which can be described as "Die Hard on a something." Speed was Die Hard on a bus; its lackluster sequel was Die Hard on a cruise ship. Sudden Death was Die Hard in a hockey stadium. Cliffhanger was Die Hard on a mountain. The River Wild was Die Hard on a river. Executive Decision was Die Hard on a plane. Air Force One was Die Hard on a very specific plane — the president’s personal 747.
Some of the best imitators offered witty cross-bred twists on the Die Hard premise: Cellular, heavily influenced by the Die Hard imitator Speed, was Die Hard on a cellphone; Crank was Die Hard on a thug.
Even Die Hard’s initial sequels were born of the same lineage: Die Hard 2, adapted from a novel that had nothing to do with the Die Hard franchise, was just Die Hard at an airport. By the time Die Hard With a Vengeance came out in 1995, the franchise itself was borrowing from its descendants: Vengeance is basically Die Hard on New York City, but it also lifts heavily from Speed. And, in an odd twist of Hollywood fate, the initial idea for the movie, which would have put John McClane on a cruise ship, was scrapped and recycled for Speed 2.
Die Hard, in other words, is the founding father of siege movies; it’s hard to think of many other movies that have spawned so many direct copycats over so many years.
Olympus Has Fallen was an effective Die Hard copycat
Olympus Has Fallen was, of course, Die Hard at the White House, and it dutifully stuck to the basics of the Die Hard formula: the besieged location, the trapped hostages, the foreign villain with the dastardly plan, the ineffectual security forces on the perimeter, the lone hero on the inside, and the supporting figures on the outside who offer advice and counsel to the hero.
The movie’s story structure followed Die Hard closely as well: The opening 20 minutes briefly introduce the characters, there’s a dramatic takeover sequence, the hero spends an hour tooling around on the inside and offing bad guys, the outside forces stage a dramatic rescue operation that fails, and in the end the hero battles it out with the bad guys through a destroyed version of the original location. Sure, Olympus's siege sequence itself, in which the terrorists take the White House using armored vehicles and gunships, is far bigger than anything that happens in Die Hard, and the main character is more of Secret Service superhero than a regular guy, but the essential elements are basically the same.
The workmanlike Olympus isn’t a great movie, but it's competent enough in its own way, largely thanks to the sure and steady hand of director Antoine Fuqua, the director of Training Day, Shooter, and The Equalizer and one of the most consistent makers of watchable R-rated action fare today. There was a comforting, familiar quality to Olympus: You always knew exactly what was coming, but you could enjoy it in the same way you enjoy singing along with a band playing its greatest hits.
But London Has Fallen botches the Die Hard formula
London Has Fallen, accordingly, is basically just Die Hard in the City of London. And it’s familiar, too, but not in a good way.
This time around, Fuqua has been replaced by Babak Najafi, himself a last-minute replacement for the film’s original director, Fredrik Bond. Najafi follows the path beaten by Fuqua, but without the basic directorial craftsmanship.
London opens with an extended introduction to the cast of characters, but instead of establishing who they are by showing us how they behave, it spends a lot of time panning through meeting rooms and other locations, briefly flashing character names and titles — most of which don’t turn out to be relevant. It’s as if the movie doesn’t know who the important characters are.
At other times, characters are introduced via expository dialogue, almost like verbal footnotes in the script. "This man is responsible for more deaths than the plague. He sells arms to every terrorist in the world," Morgan Freeman’s Vice President Trumbull explains when a villain is named. But at least that intro provides some information; later in the film, when an extraneous British intelligence officer played by Charlotte Riley arrives, Gerard Butler’s Secret Service agent Mike Banning simply explains, "This is Jacquelin, MI6’s finest. Don’t fuck with her." But even this turns out to be mostly useless information, because aside from a brief coda that plays like the resolution to a subplot that was cut from the film, Jacquelin has essentially nothing to do.
After the characters are introduced, the inevitable siege sequence arrives. It manages to be ludicrously over-elaborate and boring all at once. The movie’s premise is that a group of terrorists try to take revenge on the leaders of several countries' governments for a drone strike that killed their family members. So they stage an absurdly and unnecessarily complex attack designed to kill many heads of state in one go when those leaders converge on London to attend a funeral for the British prime minister.
Their attack involves an implausibly large number of terrorists dressed up to look like various British security forces (how, exactly, they infiltrated those security forces without anyone recognizing them is only barely explained, and the explanation is somehow less convincing than no explanation would have been) and fake-looking computer-generated explosions at various notable British monuments. After it's over, in case you didn't quite pick up on what happened, a newscaster explains that London has just suffered "an attack that has decimated most of the known landmarks in the British capital."
The underwhelming effects and hectic editing mean that this sequence, which should feel like an epic, city-wide collapse, mostly plays like a garden variety urban shoot-'em-up — the sort of gunshots-and-car-crashes action you’re just as likely to see on a TV show like Strike Back or 24. It feels small and ordinary, not grand and cinematic.
The attack, of course, leads to the film's middle section, in which the man on the inside faces off against small groups of bad guys in succession. This time, though, "the inside" is all of London itself — which turns out to be bizarrely empty. Yes, there’s a brief line in which the government asks citizens to return to their homes, but the London of London Has Fallen appears to be entirely deserted, except for hordes of disposable henchmen.
This is one of the strangest things about the movie, and one of its biggest flaws: Unlike, say, Die Hard With a Vengeance, which played out its siege across a vibrant, crowded New York City, London Has Fallen treats London like an empty set rather than a functioning, populated metropolis.
As Banning moves through London with US President Benjamin Asher (played, again, by Aaron Eckhart), the only world leader to survive the initial attack, Freeman leads a control room full of helpers back in the United States. Problem is, they have almost nothing to do throughout the movie except stare at the scene in horror and provide a few plot details when necessary.
Meanwhile, London’s security forces are mostly unseen and — of course — totally ineffectual. Eventually they make the decision to stand down entirely, because the bad guys are wearing police outfits so they can’t tell who’s on their side. It’s a bizarre and lazy plot contrivance (do British police officers and military units not recognize their colleagues?) that serves mostly as a way to isolate Banning and Asher.
The two men run and gun through an emptied-out London, with Asher providing helpful descriptions of their situation: "These guys are everywhere!" he says as henchmen appear everywhere. "I’ve never seen a man suffocate before," he says as Banning suffocates a man to death. Banning, for his part, sticks to sneering tough-guy lines: "Was that necessary?" Asher asks after Banning slowly kills a henchman with a knife. Banning’s grunted response: "No." Later, he offs a terrorist while barking that he should go back to "Fuckheadistan," which is the script's idea of wit. Mostly, London Has Fallen relies on gratuitous violence and sadism to break up the tedium, but even the kills get old eventually.
As the movie closes, there’s a failed rescue attempt followed by a last-ditch effort from Banning, set in a decimated construction zone in the middle of the city. Aside from a nicely staged stitched-together single-shot sequence in an alley, there’s nothing to see. The finale is murky and dark, so much so that at times it is literally difficult to determine what’s going on.
It’s enough to make you pine for the unshowy but effective direction of Fuqua’s original. Sure, Olympus Has Fallen was — like so many other films — just a Die Hard copycat, but it was functional enough to work. London Has Fallen is something even lesser: a crass, second-order derivative that can't even get the basics right. It's a copy of a copy, and a crude one at that.