Man, Netflix has just been racking up the 2013 movies lately. Here’s one that I had actually hoped to catch in theatres. It has a premise that seemed to offer decent action fare, that also looked like it was treating the subject matter with a bit more seriousness than the bombastic looking White House Down, something I’d also like to see another day if I get the chance.
But I’ll always take a straight attempt to play the situation over a self-parody, so I wanted to see what Gerard Butler and Aaron Eckhart were able to offer – would it be an engrossing epic, a generic action thriller or a tawdry, forgettable squib?
A little of columns A, B and C if I’m being honest.
Mike Banning (Gerard Butler) is a maligned secret service agent, out of US President Benjiman Asher’s (Aaron Eckhart) good books following his failure to rescue the First Lady from her death in a car accident. But Banning is forced back into action when the White House comes under attack from North Korean forces, led by terrorist Kang Yeonsak (Rick Yune) who hold the President hostage. They tell the Acting President (Morgan Freeman) they want a US withdrawal from the Korean Peninsula – but in truth their goals are much more insidious. With Banning the only agent left alive inside “Olympus”, it’s up to him to save the President, his young son (Finley Jacobson) and the United States itself.
A lot of action thrillers get classed as “Die Hard in XXX”, sometimes unfairly. It’s an overused comparison, even if Die Hard is the standard by which this genre is measured.
But the comparison is very relevant here. Olympus Has Fallen really is “Die Hard In The White House”. It has the one man army taking down the terrorists, an ethnic villain with outward and duplicitous motivations, a clinical initial assault on the target building, hostages, a black guy on the phone to the hero, a failed aerial assault, a preening wife character, an “in the nick of time” ending and even a similar final shot of the main characters leaving the building. The big difference, as far as I can see, is that instead of Bruce Willis trying to rescue his wife and their strained marriage, Gerard Butler is trying to rescue the President and their strained bromance. Olympus Has Fallen is trying very hard to be a souped up noughties era Die Hard, and does so with wholesale replication of key plot beats and structure. It’s “lifting” by my previously defined scale, and on a large-scale.
But is it any good? The answer is, as you might expect, yes and no.
Olympus Has Fallen is chock full of the clichés, and they are there from the start. Banning and Asher, in a roughly ten minute long prologue, are shown as the best of friends, despite their radically different stations in life. They spar together, use their first names. Banning is openly complimentary, even a little faux flirtatious, with the First Lady, he jokes around with the son. Everything is set up to make his existence and his relationship with the first family to be as ideal as possible, like an episode of Casualty before the inevitable trauma. Even a child, who had been living on Mars, would see what is coming next.
It is a bit of a surreal moment – a standard car accident is the last thing that you would expect the President of the United States to be involved in – but actually worked fairly well for me as the defining crux of the first act. Banning has to sacrifice his relationship with the President in exchange for doing his job and saving his life, since the First Lady isn’t the one with her hand on the nuclear launch codes. It is a simple set-up, but I liked it – a key friendship destroyed by professional commitments, an extreme, wholly unique kind of commitment.
Prologue over, and we’re on to the changed situation a few years down the line. While President Asher is trying to deal with the standard crises of his job along with being a widowed father, Banning is stuck behind a desk in a cushy Treasury department job, victimised by the commander-in-chief despite all and sundry agreeing he did the right thing. His relationship with his wife (Radha Mitchell) is strained, he chaffs when he sees his former compatriots go off to do their job when the South Korean PM comes calling. Some more decent, but unspectacular set-up here, a standard setting of contrasting circumstances with the opening prologue.
From there, Olympus Has Fallen dispenses with the formalities and dives headfirst into the insanity.
North Korea is becoming, more and more, a popular bad guy for Hollywood and entertainment in general. Exotic, a bad guy in reality, sort of like China but without the possibility of offending a key foreign market, they hit all of the right notes if you want a foreign nation to offer a credible threat in your action/thriller production. But Olympus Has Fallen does nothing with the North Koreans really, they’re just a suitable stand-in. The bad guys could just as easily have been Iranian, or Afghans, or even Russians if they wanted to have a callback to past adversaries. Those looking for any kind of subtle look at the problems of the Korean peninsula would be best served by looking elsewhere.
Anyway, the North Koreans, with an attack as complicated as it is executed flawlessly, assault the White House, in an action sequence that surprised me with its length. Beginning with an aerial assault from something resembling an AC-130 and ending with a gunfight inside the White House corridors, Olympus Has Fallen glories in the only reason it was ever created in the first place, as bullets whizz, blood spurts and masonry blows apart.
One of the key things for a movie like this would be its ability to suspend my disbelief. The idea that a bunch of North Koreans could actually pull this off, with some small arms, RPGs and explosives – and a stolen AC-130 I suppose – is ludicrous in the extreme, although not the most ludicrous thing in the movie. The problem isn’t so much that such an assault could not possible succeed. I don’t think that it could for the record, but that is not the problem. The problem is that such an attack would never go ahead in the first place. You don’t get that many guns and explosives that close to the White House. Terrorists don’t get to walk into the White House, posing as diplomatic security staff. It’s the whole reason the NSA is as powerful as it is.
But I suppose that I can get beyond that, because I got pretty sucked in to that first action sequence, which I found very entertaining, being all that an initial action sequence in an action film has to be. The CGI was a little wanting, but it was frantic, desperate and shockingly bloody (I had no idea Olympus Has Fallen got an “R” rating). That sense of shock and desperation is very important to create – this is supposed to be a 9/11-type situation after all – and even though the whole thing has an abundant air of unreality to it, I was still swept along for the ride, a sensory overload brought on by the sight of secret service agents dying by the truckload and the President facing a hostage situation in his own bunker.
And there is a traitor in the mix, who has the potential to be far more interesting than the primary antagonist, and in the end probably is really. Forbes is set up, from his very first line, as a jealous former confederate of Banning. That very first scene, where Banning and Asher are sparring in an intimate fashion when Forbes, encased in shadow, arrives and addresses the President formally and with a slight tone of irritation, spelled nothing but “turncoat” to me, and I was right.
But the problem is that the character is not fleshed out that much. The decision to turn on the President and your country is no small one, but the only rationale is a disjointed criticism of American politics’ relationship with business interests or something. No, past his initial defection, Forbes is just another henchmen really, like director Antoine Fuqua worried that he had too many Asian faces in the bunker.
No, the actual bad guy is a North Korean intelligence officer/terrorist/paramilitary/whatever. Just like Forbes, he’s essentially a blank slate, a somewhat creepy foreign person who seemed to give off an air of competency and menace despite never really raising his voice. Hans Gruber, he was not.
Characterisation is not something that Olympus Has Fallen is overly concerned with. It’s a film about Banning saving the President and, in the process, resurrecting their friendship, and that journey is the characterisation that the two leads get. They themselves don’t really change throughout the course of Olympus Has Fallen, they just stay the same men that they are through all of the horrific circumstances. If you’re looking for a more traditional sort of character journey, you won’t really find it here, but it is the kind of film where intense, deep characterisation isn’t really required, and might actually detract from the point of the action thriller – to be full of action and thrills. It’s rare you’ll see me write something like that, but it’s true in this limited case. Olympus Has Fallen is the kind of film that could probably stand to devote a bit more time to its characters, but not that much more, lest it lose its ability to keep the audience engaged, an audience that expects gun fights, punching and explosions over sensitive portrayals of a hostage President and a killing machine secret service agent.
Olympus Has Fallen opens up a bit from there, with a concurrent sub-plot somewhere else in DC, as Morgan Freeman’s Speaker of the House takes on the role of Acting President. I found all of these segments tired and unelaborated. I don’t think they ever even said where the VP was, or if he had been killed. I suppose they could not have been realistically expected to set a whole movie inside the White House with Butler, so these scenes were the way of taking the viewer away from that and into another, nominally, tense situation. But it pales in comparison to the genuine tension in the primary plot arc, and seems more a collection of reaction shots to the actual action going on than a fully fleshed out sub-plot. I remember The West Wing had a several-episode long story arc about an evocation of the 25th Amendment that was executed much better, but I suppose that such a comparison is just a little bit unfair.
Somehow Butler finds himself inside the White House, and the last agent left standing. I suppose Willis’ quest to save his wife added a personal touch to John McClane’s struggles that is lacking here, but I wouldn’t say that it worried me unduly. From this point is a constant turnaround of scenes, as Banning takes on small collections of North Korean minions, Asher stares down a lot of North Koreans in the bunker and Freeman tries to deal with the North Koreans outside of the bunker. The Butler moments are the best of course, the very reason that you have gone to see this film in the first place, and the well choreographed fight sequences and brutal takedowns make-up for some of the more disappointing filler. It is a rapid shift from the all-out action of the opening to the stealthy stuff inside the White House, but both work in their own ways.
The goals of the North Koreans are what is supposed to drive the tension of the film on an upwards spiral, but I found the plot holes coming thick and fast here, which sort of ruined them as a threat to me. Holding the President hostage to try and force an American withdrawal from South Korea strikes me as something very unlikely to be successful in reality as does the existence of something like “Cerberus”. A three-way operated system that has the power to detonate all US nuclear devices at once, you’d think that such a system would be a bit more hostage proof than the way it is depicted in Olympus Has Fallen.
Having remained alive inside the White House and bludgeoned a man to death with a bust of Lincoln (I’ll admit, I liked it) Banning has to engage in a bit more heart-warming stuff. The inclusion of a young son for the President is obviously just meant to make both Banning and Asher appear a little bit more human through their interaction with him. I didn’t especially like these scenes of course, or the ease with which that dangling thread was tied up, but I guess they weren’t going to keep the kid around when there was stuff to be stabbed into people’s eyes later on.
The obligatory “Moron Military” stuff follows, as the US Army tries to assault the White House and get their asses handed them despite the warning of Banning. It’s hard to find a movie like this where an authority figure, like “General Clegg”, isn’t shown up as a bit of a buffoon, second guessing the hero until he is ultimately dismissed, and that’s precisely what happens here. Olympus Has Fallen doesn’t paint the US military in that positive a light really, but they aren’t supposed to be the heroes. You can’t be a one man army unless you are only one man.
Heading towards the inevitable finale, I realised that there were three things bothering me about the execution of Olympus Has Fallen. The first was that there wasn’t enough interaction between Banning and the villain, and when there was interaction, it wasn’t particularly good. They have one half-decent exchange that ends with one of the great lines of 2013 cinema (see below), but beyond that there is little chemistry between the two. Compare to the movie that Olympus Has Fallen is trying to be, in the interactions between McClane and Gruber, full of spite, sarcasm and venom, and you begin to understand the key element that Olympus Has Fallen is missing.
That, and the President character is too much of a by-stander. He gets an awful lot of screentime to mark him out as some kind of top player, but I realised by the end that the President didn’t really get to do anything. He tells his subordinates to give up the codes, he spits insults, but mostly he’s very static with little to no impact on the plot at all.
That was really notable in the final fight. You might expect Asher top take an active role, maybe be the one to actually finish Kang off. Instead he’s sidelined very fast with a gunshot wound and left cheerleading for Banning on the sidelines. Not the best possible use of that character. He doesn’t have to be an action hero himself, but he could still stand to be a little bit more Harrison Ford from Air Force One.
Lastly, I was surprised at the sidelined way that Olympus Has Fallen treats its few female characters. The First Lady is killed off early on, and Banning’s wife is a nothing character altogether, to the extent that I’m certain most of her scenes were cut. There seems to have been the basis of some kind of sub-plot with her, after Kang directly threatens her in a conversation with Banning, but nothing comes of it, which is disappointing. There is also the secret service commander, but she is as impotent in this production as the rest of the guys surrounding Freeman.
So, Banning kills the bad guy, deactivates the bizarre MacGuffin device that raised the stakes to absurd levels in the last half hour and walks off with the girl – or, rather his bromance with President Asher, restored to its previous levels. The quick epilogue, compared to the lengthy enough prologue and the score of bloody action scene in-between, was a little jarring I will admit, but the plot of Olympus Has Fallen had done what it had set out to do, and with the bad guys all deceased there was no need to drag out proceedings any longer.
It tries to be Die Hard. It succeeds in terms of action and fight sequences, but fails when it comes to the really important stuff, most critically the relationship between the hero and the villain. The story is that of an action/thriller and does little to try and break out of the strict interpretation of that genre that has become so prevalent. If I had to sum up the story/plot of Olympus Has Fallen, I can only say that it is what it is – full of action and frequently thrilling, but you will experience those moments from a bedrock that is as shallow as you probably expected.
Gerard Butler is the lead. Having taken on the role of manliness personified in 300, he had a lot of making up to do after the atrocious Irish accent of romcom trash P.S. I Love You. So, here he is John McClane only with a secret service suit instead of an LAPD badge. Butler is likeable and intense in equal measure, having the build and the gravitas to pull off the role of an ex-Special Forces killing machine during the primary sequences, and the quiet charm and dignity to be a bit more relatable when he’s just talking.
He makes the clichéd opening sections believable through his interactions with the First Family, and manages to mark the transition to the present day sections with nicely portrayed vision of a distracted, frustrated office worker in the next scene.From there though, he’s nearly all action, save for his scenes with Conner. There is one brilliant moment where, bloodsoaked and packing heat, he lounges back in the President’s Oval Office chair as he chats with Morgan Freeman and co, every bit the guy who doesn’t want to be where he is and is just getting a little bit annoyed about the whole situation. Butler will probably be considered a go-to guy for action roles on the basis of Olympus Has Fallen, and such a distinction – if it can be called that – is well earned.
Aaron Eckhart essentially fits the role of a President character fairly well. He has that sense of authority, yet likeability, every bit the politician. But where he falls short is as the defiant hostage, and that has been better played by actors and actresses in things like 24. As I have already mentioned, the character of Asher is really underused, and as such Eckhart’s performance is maligned. He’s just there, because the setting requires him to be there, and at precious few points is he ever given the opportunity to be the actor who so thoroughly succeeded at brining Harvey Dent to the screen.
I last saw Morgan Freeman giving it absolutely no socks in the disappointing Oblivion, and he isn’t up to much better here. Aside from a brief moment when the old, much better, Freeman appeared, as he ordered coffee and prepared to deal with the responsibilities of being President, he’s just flat. His job is to just offer up a succession of reaction shots and occasionally argue with the military moron, rather than take an active role in proceedings. Moreover, his character is one that actively kowtows to the terrorists demands beyond all sense, badly damaging suspension of disbelief. I wonder if Freeman is irrevocably lodged in this twilight now, of bad supporting roles in big budget movies.
Rick Yune is the North Korean antagonist. I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised that he is, essentially, playing the same character as he did in the James Bond adventure Die Another Day, minus the sparkly albino face. Talk about type casting. Anyway, he’s alright, has the right amounts of menace and threat, but does it all without any redeeming charm or perverse attraction from the audience, as marked Alan Rickman’s role in Die Hard. Like so many Asian or Asian descended actors in Hollywood, he seems to be required to just show up and act tough, as opposed to actually act. Oh, and do some martial arts, of course.
From there, we are on to the smaller roles. Angela Basset has a role as the secret service director, as unimportant as Freeman’s and with most of the same problems. Dylan McDermott is better as the turncoat, but as stated, his weak motivations damage his performance. Finley Jacobsen does as well as can be expected as the President’s son. Radha Mitchell is underused and rather throwaway as Banning’s wife. Ashley Judd (remember her?) has the bit part as the President’s wife, and does a good job screaming when the car she is in falls off the bridge.
While there are exceptional talents in the rest of the cast – Cole Hauser and Robert Forster among them – their parts are too small and unimportant t to really take too much note of. Olympus Has Fallen is not the kind of film that was ever going to really excel on the acting front, and the cast do as good a job with the traditional structure and material as they can I suppose.
Visually, Olympus Has Fallen gets more things right than it does wrong, but that still doesn’t make for the most compelling imagery you’ll see this year. The dialogue-heavy scenes are shot with competence and in a non-nonsense style, and they are not the director’s primary concern.
No, it is in the action sequences that he finds the greater euphoria. From the opening car crash – simple in its scope and gut wrenching in its execution – to the final combat – simple again, but with some great movies from all players – Olympus Has Fallen does what it needs to do so it can be called a top notch action movie.
The action scenes are different measures of riveting and mildly upsetting, but all in a good way. The gun battles are presented excellently, as is the sense of panic and hysteria that it causes among the people of D.C. The White House gets a proper going over here, an iconic building rocked to its foundations, with walls blasted out, glass shattered and doors blown aside. Destroying such an imminently recognisable building was always going to be a treat – the right kind of directors just exult in such things – and Fuqua nails it here, turning 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue into a total warzone. That the vast majority of the film was apparently made in Louisiana means that the set work should be praised, for the way in which it re-created Washington and the White House.
This is a bloody, bloody production, far bloodier than I thought it would be. The red stuff makes frequent appearances, along with amputations, broken bones and eye piercings. It is not a film for the faith of heart, and probably does go bit overboard in that extended assault on “Olympus”.
Where Olympus Has Fallen really goes wrong on the visual side of things is with the CGI work. Stuff like the helicopter battle with the “Hydra” system or the destruction of the Washington Memorial doesn’t look all that great, at least on the small screen that I had to use. Much more laughable is the shot of a very clearly CGI American flag falling from the top of the White House, a moment of horror ruined by the unlikely way the computer creation appeared on the real backdrop.
Fuqua makes a few other odd choices in his visual direction – the arrival of the South Korean delegation gets this bombastic montage for no clear reason and a shoot out between Banning and the Koreans when he has Conner in tow is shot in too cramped a location to be effective – but mostly does just fine, but no more.
The script matches the cliché of the rest of the movie, going down every well trodden verbal path that the action/thriller has travelled before. Cutesy dialogue where the wife tests whether her husband is listening to her. The action hero promises his partner he’ll be a better husband. The mocking bad guy mocks the President. The traitor gets annoyed when people call him a traitor after he commits treason. Verbal sparring between hero and bad guy. “Stand down.” “We don’t negotiate with terrorists.” “I underestimated you”. “He will move mountains or die trying!” “How did you know his name?” “That’s a direct order! “God bless America.” “Olympus has fallen” (Hey it’s the title!) “NOOOOOO”.
Just all of that kind of stuff, but occasionally Olympus Has Fallen comes up with the gold, most notably with Banning’s closing statement to Kang in their first conversation: “Why don’t you and I play a game of ‘fuck off’? You go first”. Or in the brutal interrogation scene, after stabbing a prisoner through the head: “Yeah, I guess I’m getting a little rusty.”
The script is what it is. A few really brilliant action movie lines compliment a script that is all about playing it safe, and won’t be winning any kind of award. It exists to keep things moving between action set-pieces, little more, and largely falls apart past the half hour mark. The President’s final speech, a soppy and eye-rolly as any speech an American President can make in such circumstances, was probably the worst of it, or Forbes’ initial line after his betrayal: “I knew there was a reason I never voted for you”. What? Was the reason “I knew I would betray you on behalf of North Korea someday”?
Oh wait, Asher did give us a “NOOOOOOO” within the first five minutes, so THAT was the worst of it. The only way was up from there I suppose.
Trevor Morris, a composer more at home working on historical TV dramas, gives us a soundtrack that leaves no instrument unused in the quest to make something as generically American sounding as possible. Long drawn out horns, cascading drums with the military overtones, the gradual swelling that seems more like a very cheap rip-off of Saving Private Ryan’s score than anything, they’re all here. It is probably the most American soundtrack I have ever heard, almost laughably so, and isn’t really anything special beyond that.
Olympus Has Fallen is not a movie with great depth, but I would not say that is as shallow as it could have been. There are a few themes worth discussing, though it is fair to say that they are the kind of thing that exist mostly in the mind of the viewer, inferred rather than implied or elaborated onscreen.
The first is that of duty. Olympus Has Fallen revolves around the idea of duty, placing the concept in a very central place. Banning has a duty within his role as a secret service agent, that of protecting the President at all costs even if it means letting the First Lady fall to her death. He has a duty to tow the line and accept the unpleasant consequences of this action. He has a duty to try and protect the White House from attack.
But he has more intangibly presented duties, ones wrapped around the preservation of friendship and relationships through times of crisis. That, more than some patriotic love for country, is what keeps him going throughout the experience. Banning is a dutiful man, to his wife, his job and just to the people that need him, a hero who lives up to his responsibilities.
The second is a look at the utility of force. Kang is a villain who thinks that the correct application of violence will get him everything that he wants. In pursuing this idea, he slaughtered a large amount of people. In the world of Olympus Has Fallen, this actually appears to succeed – the Acting President agrees to his demands and starts to implement them, his hands apparently tied by the risk of the Cerberus protocol being activated. In the end, the plot is foiled by more violence, of the more direct, personal kind.
Thus, Olympus Has Fallen gives off a message that force has a rather great utility – that it can be used to achieve extreme political and diplomatic ends with the right usage. Not something that I would agree with, but there it is.
Third and last, I’d like to mention a very special theme: that of “MERICA!” Yes, that’s right; I’m using a meme word. Olympus Has Fallen is frequently the land of “MERICA!”, with its outward shows of gleeful patriotism, corny lingering on the stars and stripes and damaged American monuments, or the innate “badass-ness” of the hero as he takes on his country’s enemies. This kind of schlock, based around finding the right kind of emotional response from a stateside audience, can be perfectly summed up by the term “MERICA!” The United States is king in Olympus Has Fallen, a society and political structure above all others, attacked by the evil bad guys who want to nuke the whole world, and who can only be defeated by a good ass-kicking, delivered by as American a hero as possible. This is “MERICA!” on film, perhaps not quite as garishly as White House Down apparently does it, but in the same general ballpark. Whether that is alluring or irritating will be very much in the mind of the reviewer.
In conclusion, I must say that I enjoyed Olympus Has Fallen, even with the reservations that I had going into it. Fuqua has whipped together a very passable and enjoyable action thriller, one that is nowhere near on the same level as Die Hard but that really shouldn’t be considered to be too far away from it either.
Most of the cast, especially Eckhart and Yune’s roles, could do with fleshing out and greater interactions with the Banning character, and there seems to have been some faffing around with the various sub-plots in the editing room, to the detriment of the overall production. The CGI looks poor on the big screen, the music is derivative and the script is what’s required and little more.
But the main character is a great hero, the action scenes, be they large gun battles or up-close-and-personal combat are really well put together, and Olympus Has Fallen maintains the right pace and structure to see it over the line in as presentable a fashion as can probably be expected, given the premise and the way that it continually lifts from its most illustrious predecessor. It tackles that premise with seriousness, the opposite of White House Down, and I daresay it is a better film for it.
It is the kind of film, like Gangster Squad, that can be enjoyed without “switching off your brain”, yet requires very little mental engagement to be appreciated. In other words, it is the action thriller of 2013. Recommended.
(All images are copyright of FilmDistrict).