London Has Fallen (2016), the sequel to Olympus Has Fallen (2013) starring Gerard Butler as the top Secret Service agent to Aaron Eckhart’s US President, is an American action movie’s take on the global threat of terrorism faced by Western civilization. While standard Hollywood shoot-em-up fare, the movie provides us with an opportunity to examine the use of the foreign "other" as a common trope in action movies. In action-packed Hollywood spectacles in which America triumphs over its enemies, the villain often embodies characteristics of the current perceived U.S. enemy. In this case, a stereotypical Middle Eastern terrorist fills the role of villain rather than the slavic villains of the James Bond movies during the Cold War or the German Nazi soldiers battled by many Marvel comic book heroes. Meanwhile, like many of its action predecessors, London Has Fallen assumes the American audience's enjoyment in seeing a larger-than-life, highly masculine American hero quash terrorist activity by fighting back and delivering violent (and thus satisfying) justice.
London Has Fallen begins at a lavish wedding in Pakistan, as the daughter of a notorious arms dealer, Aamir Barkawi (Israeli actor Alon Moni Aboutboul), is about to get married. After we see a disguised agent confirm Barkawi's presence, a drone strike is executed, and many at the wedding die. Barkawi escapes, but many of his family do not survive. The main events of London Has Fallen take place two years later – two years during which Barkawi has had time to assemble a veritable army of rebels intent on crippling Western civilization. Secret service agent Mike Banning (Butler) has a baby on the way, and we see he is contemplating leaving the detail of President Benjamin Asher (Eckhart). But when the British Prime Minister dies suddenly, the presence of the world's leaders are required at his funeral. It is only a three-day visit, and although Banning, along with Secret Service director Lynne Jacobs (Angela Bassett), feel ill at ease about the sudden trip abroad, they see it as America's duty to attend. Holding down the fort back at the White House is Vice President Allan Trumbull (Morgan Freeman), who interacts with Banning and Asher primarily from the situation room for the duration of the movie. Upon arriving in London with the rest of the world's leaders, the situation deteriorates quickly, as many foreign dignitaries are killed in a spectacular coordinated attack outside Westminster Abbey and St. Paul's Cathedral. The audience sees many of London's iconic landmarks aflame as Barkawi's forces strike swiftly and without mercy.
Given November 2015's deadly attacks in Paris, the events in this movie are not outside the realm of possibility. It is obvious that there are – and always have been – forces that threaten Western democracy. At the same time, seeing this movie with an eye to cultural sensitivity provides an interesting lens for examination. Classic action movies like Die Hard (1988) and Air Force One (1997) traditionally rely on the foreign element of the "other" – Alan Rickman's Hans Gruber was German; Gary Oldman's Ivan Korshunov was Russian – to denote the reality of the threat against the American government and, thus, our way of life. Shows like 24 (2001-2010) portray terrorism threats from both Middle Eastern and Asian forces (North Korea is viewed by many as a highly acceptable staple for writing us-versus-them plots involving terrorist hotbeds). The popular Taken (2008) movie series starring Liam Neeson targets the Southeastern European/Balkan culture of Albanians as the perpetrators of a sex-worker and drug-smuggling black market.
We've always seen our real-life political enemies represented in Hollywood, from the oft-used Nazis and the Japanese after Pearl Harbor to the Russians during and after the Cold War, and now Middle Eastern cultures. In 2016, many seem more sensitive to our fellow Americans who represent these cultures, as well as the millions of people who live in these countries who aren't violent and opposed Western culture. Yet sensitivity does not seem to yet be part of our dominant culture, if many are working to create awareness within our media and political systems. Although London Has Fallen's main baddie Barkawi is Pakistani, the army of terrorists is a "global who's-who of everyone who hates us," to paraphrase the assessment of the MI6 agent as she lays out the situation for Banning. By not making the threat from one specific nation, London Has Fallen tries to get away with portraying the foreign enemy "other" simply as darker-skinned, bearded men. It subscribes to stereotypes in a way that is familiar to mainstream Americans, as the bad guys remain nameless Middle Eastern militants, without the movie's choosing any particular nation or people to vilify. Yet critics of the movie have drawn attention to this broad stereotyping. Variety called the film "effortlessly racist" and said it "predictably reverts to familiar Islamophobia." Empire called it a "violent addition to the terrorsploitation canon," adding, "Someone clear space on Donald Trump's DVD shelf." (It is an interesting side note that the director of London Has Fallen is an Iranian-born Swede, Babak Najafi.)
As you might guess, at the end of London Has Fallen, the good guys will triumph over the terrorists, after a fair amount of bloodshed and treachery along the way. Thus the film restores the balance of the existing world order and affirms the American way of life, serving a long-standing function of Hollywood action movies: identify a threat, however vague, to our world view and end with that threat safely eliminated. Films like London Has Fallen, which will surely perform adequately at the box office, demonstrate that a majority of domestic moviegoers still feel the need to see their enemies taken down and brought to swift justice by a masculine American hero.