Olympus Has Fallen
Gerald Butler looks like he should be propping up the bar in EastEnders. And yet, he has a fairly tidy Hollywood career going for him. One enormous hit can carry you only so far, particularly when it’s debatable how vital you were to that success. Mind you, following up 300 with a series of forgettable romcoms and trashy action movies probably isn’t the best way to verify one’s appeal. I suspect the key to Butler’s star turn in that film wasn’t his finely toned abs. Rather, it was his impressively pointy beard. Have we seen it since? No. Has he appeared in anything approaching 300’s popularity since? No.
Here, Gerald plays Secret Service agent Mike Banning, detailed to President Aaron Eckhart’s personal protection. He is reassigned to a dull desk job at the Treasury Department following a tragic incident requiring him to make the most difficult of judgement calls (this, the opening sequence, is possibly the best in the film; it’s certainly the only one showing any degree of restraint or verisimilitude). Banning and the President were best buds, of course; they boxed together, he was like a slightly mid-Atlantic uncle to the President’s son, and he even advised the President’s wife on what earrings to wear. How can he possibly “redeem” himself? Fortunately, a whacky terrorist incident is just round the corner. It’s exactly what he needs!
This time it’s those dastardly Koreans who are up to no good. But don't worry if you’re Korean, and feel as if you are being unfairly maligned; these particularly Korean terrorists are an ill-defined breakaway faction and should not be seen as damning an entire nation (or nations)! This, of course, is in the Hollywood rulebook for the depiction of terrorists in movies; it’s okay to vilify a nation as long as you go out of your way to say that you aren’t really doing any such thing.
Their leader (Rick Yune) is North Korean, but he is not directly affiliated to North Korea (the ones we're supposed to dislike, and who don’t provide sufficiently high cinema attendance, so it’s okay to make them villains in a Hollywood movie right now). So, when he attempts to initiate nuclear holocaust, we shouldn’t assume that this is what North Korea wants. Right? Additionally, we shouldn’t assume that all Koreans are equally undesirable, even though those stupid South Koreans enabled one of the world’s most prolific terrorists to infiltrate their cabinet (Wiki says that he’s posing as a ministerial aide, but I’m sure that’s not what I heard; either way, these South Koreans are slack). We are told this is because no photos of Kang exist, but in Hollywood speak we know this means its because all foreigners look alike (even unto each other). If you’re offended by any of this, it’s your own fault; the script makes it quite clear that all bases are covered and no one could possibly be aggrieved.
If the special effects in Olympus Has Fallen are frequently not-so-special, one still can’t fail to be impressed by the credulity writers Creighton Rothenberger and Katrin Benedikt expect of the viewer. Our terrorists mount their attack on the White House in the most ridiculously insane manner imaginable. But you know, it takes an insane plan to make a difference in America today.
As to Rick Yune’s bad guy, it suggests someone has been watching Die Another Day. Where he also plays a North Korean super-villain. Credit where it's due, Yune seems to be enjoying himself immensely. As usual in such set-ups, the security measures our hero would take are not followed by others; the new head of the President’s detail, Cole Hauser (who must have resigned himself to a career of supporting roles) says that they are following standard procedures. Why should he do otherwise, unless you’re the type who instantly assumes that a delegation of South Korean government officials (our friends, remember) will be a nest bed of North Korean extremists? Also as per the norm, there's an inside man who is identifiable in about ten seconds and has motivation so half-hearted and garbled one can only assume the writers were on a caffeine high when they thrashed him out.
Radha Mitchell plays Banning's Leah. Leah works at a nearby hospital, which is useful when the filmmakers need to show just how horrific these terrorist acts can be. This kind of incident has consequences, you know! Consequences more than justifying Banning’s use of interrogation methods, the like of which would make even Jack Bauer blanch. The set up also allows Banning a mid-carnage phone call to his missus, where he expresses his love without really saying what he’s up to; kind of like the Sergeant Al Powell scene in Die Hard but not very good.
I seem to be watching only films with Morgan Freeman in at the cinema this year. Here he is again, the Speaker of the House (a step down from the halcyon days of his Deep Impact presidency). There's Dylan McDermott in another crappy supporting role. And there’s Melissa Leo; I seem to be watching only films with Melissa Leo in at the cinema this year. Poor Melissa’s Secretary of Defence becomes a human punchbag. Hey, she can take it. There are a number of very good actors in minor or forgettable parts (Angela Bassett, Ashley Judd, Robert Forster), but it’s that kind of film. I don’t know what Eckhart thinks he’s doing with his career, but this and Battle: Los Angeles probably aren’t the best way to go.
Olympus follows the Die Hard template scrupulously, but it lacks the wit or finesse of that (the original, at any rate) film. Actually, saving the President is probably the only place John McClane could go now, so they missed a trick not adapting this for him. But the first Die Hard had the veneer of a screenplay that actively sought to plug plot holes or make a virtue of them. Olympus definitely doesn’t do that.
Any film that has a terrorist takeover of the Oval Office as its premise is unlikely to hold up to much scrutiny, but there seems to be an active contempt for internal logic here. It’s understandable to an extent, because if the party line of non-negotiation were adhered to you wouldn’t have a movie (it’s rather quaint that Hollywood still wheels out the “terrorists with hostages making demands” premise, as it seems entirely antiquated in the today’s world). But it would be refreshing if a movie like this found a way to surprise in its choices, rather than going the usual clichéd route of stalling while the hero takes out more bad guys.
Especially as the ultimatums in this film are so ludicrously large that there’d never be any question of bending to them for the sake of a few lives. In particular, the Cerberus sub-plot makes not a jot of sense; surely if the terrorists could do what they can do with only one code, the President wouldn’t even conceive of his staff surrendering them. It’s also very considerate, and inefficient, of Kang to leave great gaps of time between demanding each code. The whole idea would be more suited to Colossus: The Forbin Project.
Antoine Fuqua stages the action coherently and effectively, occasionally let down by a scale his budget will not allow. Brooklyn’s Finest suggested Fuqua was intent on finding material with a bit more meat to it, but this indicates he has forsaken such lofty aims for B-movie pulp. It should also be noted that, despite only carrying a “15” certificate, this is a relentlessly, graphically, violent film. I’m not going to be hypocritical and suggest it isn’t enjoyable, but there’s a point where you do start to wonder if less might not be more; by the time of the bloody, ticking clock showdown it’s all become a bit wearisome.
Fuqua’s never been the most ironic of directors and, for a stupid film, Olympus Has Fallen takes itself much too seriously (just watch that tattered American flag falling in slow motion!). Butler occasionally gets a bit quippy, but it’s more on the level of Jason Statham than prime Willis. The closest you get is the realisation, when Butler says he's gong to stick a knife in someone's brain, that is exactly what will happen. That, and stoving in a terrorist’s head with a bust of Abraham Lincoln. It’s not exactly Noel Coward. Perhaps Fuqua could have achieved the status of a minor classic with a polish by Shane Black (and the self-consciousness of his script for Last Boy Scout). Instead, this is two hours of mindless but diverting mayhem; instantly gratifying but unlikely to demand a repeat performance.