In the forgettable but fun “Olympus,” we watched as Banning fended off a North Korean terrorist plot to assassinate the U.S. president. What that 2013 film lacked in originality was made up for by tense direction, courtesy of Antoine Fuqua (“Training Day”), and action sequences that, despite gratuitous neck stabbings, were viscerally gratifying. Its 2016 sequel, which revolved around a terrorist plot hatched by a Pakistani arms dealer, combined direct-to-DVD-caliber special effects with xenophobic stereotypes of the worst sort, including the cringeworthy line, “Go back to F---head-istan.” If “Olympus” was largely indifferent to politics, “London” had an unmistakably conservative bent. At that point, it would have been easy to scrub all memory of this “Die Hard”-like franchise.
But “Angel” has seemingly reflected on the real-world events of the past three years to deliver a more nihilistic message: everyone is to blame. In what you might expect to be a mind-numbing explosion-fest, the most novel thing about the new movie is its thematic underpinning.
As the film opens, Banning is suffering from PTSD and abusing pain pills, thanks to the injuries of past two films. He’s on the verge of hanging up his earpiece, yet, predictably, he’s also about to earn a promotion to head up the Secret Service. During an assassination attempt by drone that leaves the president (Morgan Freeman) in a coma, every member of the presidential security detail is killed — except Banning.
When he comes to in the hospital, our hero is accused of planning the attack, as the only Secret Service survivor. In a nod to the current political climate that will almost surely elicit groans, the FBI has found evidence on the Dark Web suggesting a link between Banning and the Kremlin. What follows are the sort of perfunctory twists and turns that any attentive viewer will spot from a mile away. But the way the movie shapes its plot into a kind of social commentary is worth chewing on. Who is to blame for our national panic? There is no simple answer.
In its search, “Angel” takes aim across the political spectrum: Russia-obsessed conspiracy theorists are a particular focus, as is a group of private citizens-turned-mercenaries (think: Blackwater). The sanest person in the film turns out to be Banning’s father (Nick Nolte), a kooky geezer living off the grid in West Virginia, where his concerns about the direction of society feel more justified than paranoid. You’d expect a meathead action movie to play Nolte’s character for laughs, but he ultimately develops into a sympathetic figure — no surprise, given the film’s skewering of the political climate.
On the other hand, here’s the real mystery: How does an $80 million movie end up looking so low-rent? Several exterior shots look like a soundstage. Action set pieces are laughably choreographed. In one, Banning flees an exploding building, but the CGI is so obvious that he never looks the least bit in danger.
Most action flicks would settle for thrilling violence and mayhem, in service of a utilitarian plot. “Angel” flips this formula on its head, delivering a surprisingly coherent story but with no discernible sense of fun. Maybe it’s worth giving the series another crack; “Angel’s” ending certainly hints at the prospect of another sequel. Then again, we all might be better off at this point if Banning simply traded his badge for angel’s wings.
R. At area theaters. Contains violence and crude language throughout. 114 minutes.