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'London Has Fallen' Is Rife With Absurdity and Vapidity

This film's absurdity is hammered home by repeated deployments of surveillance monitors, social media, video game images, the Internet, and cell phones.

London Has Fallen

Director: Babak Najafi
Cast: Gerard Butler, Aaron Eckhart, Morgan Freeman, Alon Aboutboul, Angela Bassett, Robert Forster, Melissa Leo, Radha Mitchell, Waleed Zuaiter, Jackie Earle Haley, Sean O'Bryan, Mehdi Dehbi, Charlotte Riley
Rated: R
Studio: Gramercy Pictures
Year: 2016
US date: 2016-03-04 (General release)
UK date: 2016-03-03 (General release)

"I'm going to kill you live!" But, adds the terrorist who's holding the American president hostage, "That doesn't mean you won't suffer privately first!"

It's near the end of London Has Fallen when Kamran Barkawi (Waleed Zuaiter) makes this grim threat against President Asher (Aaron Eckhart). Indeed, the villain proceeds with a ferocious assault on the president, whose suffering is signified by his bloodied face and widening eyes. As you watch this barbarity, you anticipate the inevitable appearance of the president's brilliant killing-machine bodyguard, Mike (Gerard Butler), an appearance guaranteed to escalate the violence and the noise and the corny dialogue.

Yet, even amid all this watching and anticipating, it's hard not to be distracted too, by the nutty absurdity of Kamran's announcement -- that he means to kill his victim live. It's just the sort of absurdity that powers this franchise. As London Has Fallen follows the formula established by Olympus Has Fallen, this absurdity, shaped by media, is hammered home by repeated deployments of surveillance monitors, social media, video game images, the Internet, and cell phones to move plot and also to characterize its good guys and bad guys.

The lines between these sides are at once vividly drawn and a little blurred. Yes, the film begins with the US (and maybe the G8) sending in a drone strike on Kamran's sister's wedding in Pakistan's Punjab region, in hopes of killing his war-lording and arms-dealing dad, Aamir (Alon Aboutboul), an attack that misses its primary target but kills the bride, leading to Aamir's single-minded vengeance-in-London plot, two years in the making. Also yes, Mike heads to London while his pregnant wife Leah (Radha Mitchell) waits at home. So, the angry dad and the best-intentioned dad to be share a certain investment in the idea of children, as bearers of their legacies and hopes for their futures.

Anxious when she learns of the attack on London via her TV, Leah's efforts to discover her husband's whereabouts by watching TV sets up an odd not-quite-parallel with both Aamir (who instructs his son and observes results from a bunker in Pakistan, where his wireless connection is remarkably consistent) and the British and US governments. Apart from the world leaders who are assassinated at the start, pretty much everyone else involved watches everything from afar, which means that the bulk of the plot, such as it is, consists of reaction shots. "We just changed the world," smirks Aamir. “We live in a dangerous world and have few good options,” Vice President Trumbull (Morgan Freeman) reminds you.

The passivity of viewing -- yours included -- becomes thematic, as you're reminded of how little work you do as you absorb (Mike's) outrage and righteous anger. Repeatedly, observers at Scotland Yard and back in the States gasp at the action on their screens and make a couple of phone calls so they can commiserate with their colleagues or shake their fists at their enemies. Lawrence O'Donnell on MSNBC narrates that the terrorists have "decimated most of the known landmarks in the British capital."

At least Secret Service Director Lynne Jacobs (Angela Bassett) is on the ground with Mike and Asher to declare, "It was a trap", just in case you looked away from the movie screen and somehow missed these basic plot points. Such attention to the pervasiveness of talking heads, on those figures and faces who frame your experience of what you're already watching, is part and parcel of today's typical viewing experience, which is to say, today's typical life experience. If London Has Fallen does nothing else, it underscores just how that experience is organized by frames and surfaces and alarming vapidity.

To that point, while Lynn and Mike and Asher scramble in the streets and skies of London, whether riding in ineffectively armored cars or the instantly vulnerable Marine One, their communications are cut off, or more precisely, monitored by Kamran and Aamir, really extra mad that they missed their primary target, the US president. It's not that they're especially sad that they might now kill him live, of course, but their really extra madness is part of the formula here, a way to galvanize Mike's in-kind really extra madness. As always, Mike expresses that madness colorfully, offering lots of expletives (promising to send Kamran "back to Fuckhanistan!") and colloquialisms ("Things are about to get sporty!").

None of this tells you anything new about Mike. Still, his language elucidates Mike's a genius at being Mike, the biggest badass in his world, no matter the clichés he must embody or the mayhem he must commit. Moreover, he does all this without Liam Neeson's grave charisma or Ryan Reynolds' meticulous cynicism or Mike Colter's emotional intelligence. Mike's appeal -- if you can call it that -- is precisely his brutality, specifically, brutality wrapped up in the US flag.

Even if Mike isn't the most patriotic franchise movie hero ever (let's stipulate that's Captain America), he incarnates and sells a patriotism for his moment. In this moment, splashed all over the screens you watch every day, Mike's patriotism is entertainment, a pattern of casual racism, primitive bluster, and prosaic self-understanding.


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