I saw London has fallen last night. I’d expected it to to be a run-of-the-mill action film. Perhaps because I haven’t seen one for a while, I found it surprisingly heavy on violence, and light on plot or character. What I did find interesting, though, was the narratives and particularly perspectives that underpinned the portrayals of violence.
[SPOILER ALERT: What follows talks about plot points throughout, including the conclusion].
I’ve been trying (and failing, to a large extent), to think of how best to explain how watching London is falling felt. The narrative’s initial inflection points are a series of catastrophic attacks. The United States President, probably the most protected person in the world, gradually becomes more and more vulnerable as successive events and attacks strip away the layers of protection.
Finally, he’s left alone with only a single bodyguard, in the empty streets of a London curfew. There is no one to trust, because the enemy have infiltrated Scotland Yard, and impersonated police officers. This, it seems, is the vision director Babak Najafi has been driving towards; a Hobbesian world where no one can be trusted, and nothing can be relied on except the power of one man’s fist against another.
It’s in the shadowy world of dark streets filled with blazing guns that London has fallen works through some of the fears that loom large in the zeitgeist. Hollywood movies have always been a way to tell stories about significant fears, like terrorism or Soviet invasion. This treatment is particularly lacking in nuance – for me, The Siege dealt with a much more interesting set of questions: what does freedom mean, and how are individual liberties balanced against collective security.
London has fallen fails completely to engage with that. The narrative questions it asks is a simple one – are Banning’s fist, gun and knife strong enough to kill every enemy he encounters, and protect the President who is also his friend? Because the movie asks such a simple question, it’s difficult for it to escalate with complex trade-offs. Once the guns have started going off, there is little that can be done to heighten the tension except bringing in bigger guns and explosions. The most significant trade-off it can force the bodyguard protagonist, Banning, to accept, is whether he will risk killing the President to stop the terrorists taking him alive.
In terms of the geopolitics, the only positive thing that can be said of London has fallen is that it pins the villains’ motivation on a family loss, and thus avoids the risks and pitfalls of trying to meaningfully portray Islamic terrorism in a condensed, action driven movie narrative.
The villain’s motivation is driven by the death of family members, in a drone strike. In that sense, London has fallen is a fascinating ouroboros. It opens with a family at a wedding in Pakistan. Some of the family members are portrayed as villainous international arms dealers, but still a family celebrating a peaceful wedding. Then, a drone strike hits. They resurface years later as a family embittered and motivated by that attack. Somehow, though, the film manages to avoid any sense of reflection or insight when, at the conclusion, the Americans triumphantly launch another drone strike at the same target in another city environment, assuring themselves that this time there’ll be no collateral damage.
Like a salve to the conscience, Morgan Freeman appears as vice-President at one point, declaring that America can’t chose not to engage with the rest of the world. This is a disturbingly false dichotomy, trying to argue that somehow the only options are isolationism or drone strikes.
One of the slightly positive features of the movie was that it wasn’t a white-wash. Morgan Freeman features as a vice-president, and there’s representation in a few other roles as well. Sadly, that only seems to go far; there are still a few throw-away lines that suggest a heteronormative perspective, afraid of any ‘other’.
All in all, this is a movie that’s interesting to think about, but the enjoyment in watching it only extends as far as the thrill of action scenes pounding after each other. As Rotten Tomatoes puts it:
London Has Fallen traps a talented cast — and all who dare to see it — in a mid-1990s basic-cable nightmare of a film loaded with xenophobia and threadbare action-thriller clichés.