The fog of war made it look like 2013’s Battle for the White House had a victor before the clash had even begun. That year saw the release of two competing projects with nearly identical premises: What would happen if terrorists took over the White House and only one brave man stood between the President of the United States and certain death?
On one side: Sony’s White House Down, directed by blockbuster veteran Roland Emmerich (Independence Day, 2012) and co-starring Jamie Foxx (as a Barack Obama-inspired Commander-in-Chief) and then-rising star Channing Tatum as his would-be rescuer. On the other: Olympus Has Fallen, a film produced by the much-smaller Millennium Entertainment, given less than half White House Down’s budget, and helmed by Gerard Butler, Aaron Eckhart and Morgan Freeman, name actors all, but not the sort of stars guaranteed to get moviegoers into theaters.
Even in retrospect, it seems like White House Down ought to have walked away the winner. Emmerich directs with a deft, light touch not found in his other films and Foxx and Tatum have a lot of fun going toe-to-toe against bad guys led by James Woods (in one of his last roles before he apparently retired to devote more time to operating as an odious right-wing Twitter troll). By contrast, Olympus Has Fallen is a joyless slog made watchable mostly by Antoine Fuqua’s technically skilled direction. But even that does little to offset grotesque scenes of terrorists slaughtering dozens of innocent civilians in attacks the film treats with the grave seriousness of an actual national tragedy, down to a Trevor Morris score that uses the sort of stern snare drum and mournful trumpet sounds usually reserved for films about D-Day.
And yet, six years later, White House Down has been all but forgotten, left on the heap of underperforming summer blockbusters, while Olympus Has Fallen has spawned two sequels, the little-loved 2016 follow-up London Has Fallen and the just-released Angel Has Fallen. Did anyone ask for this? Or better yet, how did this happen in the first place?
It’s possible to do some Monday-morning quarterbacking about the release and marketing strategies of the 2013 films. After scrambling by both Sony and Millennium, Olympus Has Fallen beat White House Down to theaters by several months, while Sony’s promotion for White House Down did little to capture its lighthearted tone or Foxx and Tatum’s chemistry. But the underlying answer is, unsurprisingly, money.
“That’s the key distinction,” says Scott Mendelson, who writes about film for Forbes. “White House Down crossed $200 million worldwide, but it cost $150 million to produce so Sony was hoping for over/under $350 million worldwide. Ironically, Olympus Has Fallen made almost identical box office numbers — but on a mere $60 million budget.”
The production studio also plays a role. Sony can chalk up White House Down as a misstep and move on to any number of other projects. For Millennium, however, this match-up proved to be a much bigger deal, and a sequel an even bigger opportunity. “A sequel makes more sense,” Screencrush editor-in-chief Matt Singer explains, “when you see that it was produced by Millennium Films, a smaller studio that mostly cranks out action pictures that either go direct-to-video or look like they could have gone straight-to-video. For Millennium, this was about as big a film as they’ve ever had.”
The series also clearly matters to Butler, whose career has settled into a lower tier of stardom after becoming a next-big-thing candidate following the success of 300 — he’s essentially become the Mendoza Line of leading men, which undoubtedly makes him even more invested in the success of an ongoing franchise in a market increasingly driven by sequels. “Butler is a rare thing in that he’s a ‘movie star’ as long as the movies are cheap enough to be wins with a $15 million opening weekend,” Mendelson says. “So Den of Thieves is a winner, but Geostorm is not.”
“He’s certainly not an A-lister, but he does manage to deliver solid B-movie receipts for most of his action pictures,” Singer adds.
As for the Fallen series itself, in his review of Men in Black: International, MEL’s own Tim Grierson coined the phrase “zombie franchises” to explain film series that lumber on long after the life has been drained out of them. The Fallen films suggest another phenomenon: The cockroach franchise — series small, agile and durable enough to survive no matter the changes in the environment around them.
But why this franchise? The first two movies offer dispiriting answers yet, unexpectedly, Angel Has Fallen provides some cause for hope — and reasons to cheer for the appearance of more cockroach franchises.
We learn little about the series’ protagonist, Mike Banning, in either Olympus Has Fallen or London Has Fallen beyond the basics: He’s a man with a job he takes seriously and a wife he loves. He’s also extremely good at killing people — and a lot of those people belong to other races. Olympus Has Fallen pits him against North Koreans, and London Has Fallen finds him fighting Middle Eastern terrorists. While the plots provide some bits of nuance, they’re still films driven by the image of a white hero exacting vengeance on foreign foes. What’s more, both films find Banning operating with an attitude toward torture that makes 24’s Jack Bauer look like a bleeding heart, and both share an almost pornographic interest in the image and sounds of a knife piercing flesh.
While the mostly dreadful Olympus at least has Fuqua’s steady hand behind the camera, the much worse London Has Fallen sports the undistinguished work of Babak Najafi and lines like, “Why don’t you boys pack up your shit and head back to Fuckheadistan or wherever it is you’re from?” (The worst bit of dialogue, however, belongs to the British Prime Minister who, ahead of the funeral of his predecessor, tells Aaron Eckhart’s President Benjamin Asher, “You know the funny thing is James always hated funerals.” “Yeah,” Asher replies. “Don’t we all?” Indeed.)
They’re miserable films that don’t even make particularly good use of Butler, who mostly serves as a meaty weapon of American vengeance. All of which makes Angel Has Fallen something of a shock. It would be a mistake to call it a great movie, but it’s exactly the sort of thoughtful, well-crafted, mid-tier action film we rarely see anymore. The presence of director Ric Roman Waugh (Snitch, Shot Caller) helps. A former stunt performer, he builds the film around a series of carefully constructed set pieces while recognizing that viewers need more than set pieces.
Meanwhile, the script allows Butler to turn Banning into a more fully fleshed-out character, one struggling with some personal demons and forced to confront the past he’s tried to forget in the form of his living-off-the-grid recluse father (spritely played by Nick Nolte). Angel also benefits from more ambiguous politics that make reference to the corporatization of the American military and Russian election meddling (even if Waugh insists he didn’t try to make any kind of political statement with the film).
Out of nowhere, the third entry in an otherwise risible franchise has produced a thoroughly satisfying action film. Sure, it features a couple of effects shots that wouldn’t look out of place in a Sharknado movie, but it otherwise makes a virtue out of its limitations, turning a cabin in the woods and a hospital into sites for tense showdowns. The film allows both Butler and Waugh room to show what they can do and throws meaty parts to Nolte, Jada Pinkett Smith, Tim Blake Nelson and Danny Huston — always welcome actors who understand the needs of the genre.
So maybe we’ve been asking the wrong question all along. Maybe we shouldn’t puzzle over why we keep getting Fallen films, but why we don’t see more franchises like it. Why are the John Wick and Fallen movies the only meat-and-potatoes action films going? And why don’t we see their equivalent in genres like science fiction or comedies anymore? Horror seems to be the only genre able to sustain series without budgets that cost as much the economies of small nations. Is it too much to ask that other genres find their equivalent of Blumhouse?
Franchises can, by definition, get stuck offering more of the same over and over again. But, as Angel Has Fallen proves, they can also offer up surprises and weird left turns. Success within a limited budget offers more room to maneuver, and though the cost of marketing and releasing a film to theaters has scared off many studios and distributors from pushing all but the safest-looking films for theatrical release, the preponderance of zombie franchises has led to considerable fatigue, as reflected by their box office returns (who now even remembers Dark Phoenix, a June 2019 release?)
Franchises that aim a little lower, however, might find audiences ready for what they have to offer, and if what they have to offer varies and improves from entry to entry, all the better. The window for what succeeds in theaters has narrowed, but it hasn’t closed. There’s still a crack large enough for a cockroach or two to slip through.