LONDON HAS FALLEN AND HOUSE OF CARDS REVIEWED
2 PRESIDENTS; VERY DIFFERENT AIMS AND METHODS..AND YET..SOMEHOW..SOMETHING IN COMMON, PERHAPS?..
Presidents of the USA always make for great entertainment onscreen. The White House /Oval Office; the very notion of a Plane called Air Force One. And so on. It has a theatrical allure and innate narrative power.
The sense of having in theory, absolute power, potentially for eight years (plus legacy), and moral authority to match. And yet still having to fight the system from the moment you are elected through to the day you pass the torch to the next ‘Mr. (or Mrs) President’.
The nature of that journey has never been more in the public eye than now, as we reach the closing stages of campaigning in the bids to be nominated as the Republican and Democrat candidate for the next ‘real life’ President. It’s worth a film in itself.
I nominate SHARON STONE to play HILLARY CLINTON. I suggested as much to her lovely daughter, Chelsea, over tea in Oxford a few years ago; ‘Richard Gere or Christopher Walken can play Bill‘, I added!. But meantime, one must settle for our fictional Presidents, both on television and in film.
This past fortnight has given us one brilliant baddie (KEVIN SPACEY as FRANK UNDERWOOD in HOUSE OF CARDS, series 4, on NETFLIX) and one ultra goodie (AARON ECKHART as BENJAMIN ASHER, on film, in LONDON HAS FALLEN, the sequel to OLYMPUS HAS FALLEN).
HOUSE OF CARDS series 4 is definitely a return to form, mirroring again the beats of the UK version, just transferred to a more global and powerful, dramatic and exaggerated arena. Series 3 had for me, ‘jumped shark’ so I jumped ship as a viewer and was determined, initially, not to see anymore.
I refer to the moment that Mrs Underwood (ROBIN WRIGHT) wiped herself, post lavatory visit, in full view /earshot of some foreign dignitary. I remember shouting loudly about it on Facebook at the time. ‘Oh that’s just power games, James: she was playing with him’, said some response or other.
Except the only ‘power game’ one should witness in this show is one played by KEVIN SPACEY as Frank. That is the PITCH of the show! By all means make some spin off called ‘First Lady’ but DON’T dilute the Frank Underwood destroy your enemies and win fantasy.
It’s corporate wish fulfillment for every downtrodden employee through to every over ambitious CEO everywhere. Heck, some actual Politicians might even watch and copy it? Vicarious fun: evil, but with patriotic purposefulness. Otherwise, what’s the point? What does the show offer without our identifying with the bad guy as hero, President Underwood? The whole thing would descend to soap opera and may as well be DALLAS /DYNASTY in the White House.
Thankfully, series 4 seemed to ‘get’ that and has returned to erudite political observations, punctuated by Machiavellian intrigue and wrapped in well plotted, distinctively scripted drama. Robin still gets a big role as First Lady /Vice President in waiting, with some filler stuff about her dying Mom. She also directs a number of episodes and brilliantly so.
But make no mistake, this is Spacey’s show once again and all other characters and plot-lines are subsidiary. Even when NOT onscreen, he fills it and owns it, getting better with each series, where the law of diminishing returns usually dictates the opposite.
There are a few missteps. The President is taken down by a nasty illness that never convinces. There is a pointless speechwriter character shoehorned in as a supposed hunk (has the bar REALLY dropped THAT low?). The series begins with an act of misogynistic masturbation. Some of the President’s old allies turn against him without a truly sufficient motivation. Aside from that: it was perfect political and philosophical drama.
The duel of wits between Spacey’s Underwood and his rival for the White House (JOEL KINNAMAN) is excellent and a quite logical transfer of the dynamic between IAN RICHARDSON/PAUL FREEMAN/MICHAEL KITCHEN in the UK versions.
You will WANT the ‘bad guy’ to win here, with Spacey’s Underwood, (like Richardson’s Urqhart before him), somehow rationalising their most brutal actions and helping you to loathe the so called forces for ‘good’ that might stand in their way.
There are some truly impressive technical innovations on display, too. The rallies are at times cinematic in the scope of their sound and lighting. You may also have noted some excellence in viral video campaigns to promote the series.
And the final twists and turns and manipulations in the series by episodes 12/13 are rewarding to viewers that stay the course. At once thrilling, frightening, sobering, darkly comic, satirical and thought provoking.
Look out, too, for a winsome and malleable Vice President as well as some quite uncomfortable questions about the war on terror. Art mirroring life? ‘You might think that..‘.
President Underwood, of course, is somewhat unhealthily close to his Security Detail. But he’s not alone in that. AARON ECKHART’s President Asher in LONDON HAS FALLEN has returned to Cinemas, once again tied to his Protection Officer, Mike Banning (GERARD BUTLER: Gerry, hereafter).
Of course, this movie is NOT intended as complex satire. It is meant to be a shameless, joyful shoot-em-up, macho fantasy, for fans of Gerry, both male and female. Women fancy him. Men want to be him. Bit like JAMES BOND (a role he shamelessly and endearingly lobbied for: he’d have been great, and still would..).
Gerry is a comic genius when needed and makes even the most contrived line sound improvised in the moment. Physically, this is a force of nature and one would not wish to take him on in a fight. A qualified lawyer in real life, he also convinces when forced to portray a man sat at a desk /laptop etc. So, the Banning secret service super-man is ideal for this star actor. A kind of silver medal 007 via dash of DIE HARD.
And yet, the premise of what is now a bona fide ‘franchise’ revolves, specifically, around the PRESIDENT getting into a spot of bother. In some sense, this is as much Aaron Eckhart/President Asher’s ‘story’ as it is one for Gerry /Banning.
So it may as well be a sensitive art movie series about two gay men that cannot admit their true feelings, albeit punctuated by gunfights with terrorists! OK, not really. NO WAY could Gerry be gay. Or Aaron.
But one is never TRULY convinced by Banning’s domestic set-up / pregnant wife (RADHA MITCHELL, wasted here), or by the President’s buddy buddy bonding with an offscreen ‘son’. Just sayin’, like..
The premise for a film like LONDON HAS FALLEN is, by its very nature, ludicrously exaggerated and depends on its execution for one to suspend disbelief. London is literally taken over by terrorists. Gerry must save President and thereby, the day. The end. It’s that simple. Should be fun?
Well yes. But NO! I HATE to say this, but we ARE in fact, at war. With ACTUAL terrorists. Planning real world atrocities. We KNOW this, all too recently and painfully.
It is of course fine for movies to ‘go there’ in an escapist manner. James Bond and Die Hard did this so well in certain episodes: they’d reference ‘terror’ briefly, then remind us the baddies just want cash/ world domination etc. So you could just sit back and enjoy the ride.
LONDON HAS FALLEN makes a grave miscalculation with a prologue that clumsily and eerily echoes the complexities of our real world foreign and defence policy dilemmas.
An ‘arms dealer’ (yes they even TRY to NOT say ‘terrorist’) has his family wiped out. By a British /American missile. He therefore wants revenge. Cue his..er..revenge? So, we DO hate him and want him stopped, yet we are led into this story from HIS viewpoint?
That is a deeply irresponsible, ill advised and frankly maddeningly illogical premise from which to launch a balls to the wall, shamelessly patriotic, popcorn propaganda flick.
There is a fundamental conflict between the movie’s foundations and its subsequent scenes. Disparate intentions and methods in the storytelling. And the film suffers for it, because it makes it then far harder to forgive the mediocre action choreography, wasted cameos (ANGELA BASSETT, MORGAN FREEMAN, COLIN SALMON), cardboard cliche characters and frankly unflattering depiction of the British as this incompetent, save one fairly unremarkable and charmless Mi6 agent.
LONDON HAS FALLEN simply fails to best its predecessor (OLYMPUS HAS FALLEN). There are better movies that show London in action settings (SKYFALL, SPECTRE) and better franchises with one man vs the terrorists (DIE HARD).
And yet, I remain curious about a part 3. THE WORLD HAS FALLEN? Why not? Gerry Butler /Banning is always fun. And, to be fair to the man, you will therefore enjoy MOMENTS of his antics in LONDON HAS FALLEN, just not enough for a satisfying film, overall.
But the next President will need him, whoever it is. Perhaps they could team Gerry Butler’s Banning with Kevin Spacey’s Frank Underwood? Stranger things have happened in Hollywood. ‘You might very well think that. I could not possibly comment’.
HOUSE OF CARDS is now available to stream on NETFLIX. LONDON HAS FALLEN is still in Cinemas.