Olympus Has Fallen an Entertaining Action Yarn
By Kristin Battestella
Even after seeing a resurgence of ‘Butler Did It’ charm in all the press, interviews, and promotions for Olympus Has Fallen, it still took me more than six weeks to catch Gerard Butler’s latest kick ass action release at the cinema. This first of two 2013 ‘Save the White House’ thrillers is waning in theatres now, and only three other people attended my early morning showing. Don’t you know it; two of them talked most of the time! What are the odds?
Ex-Ranger and Secret Service Agent Mike Banning (Butler) is removed from President Benjamin Asher’s (Aaron Eckhart) detail after a deadly car accident. Secret Service Director Lynne Jacobs (Angela Bassett) places Banning in a desk job at the U.S. Treasury where he watches helplessly as Kang Yeonsak (Rick Yune) and his North Korean terrorists lay siege upon the White House. Kang holds President Asher and Secretary of Defense Ruth McMillan (Melissa Leo) hostage in an underground bunker while Speaker of the House Allan Trumbull (Morgan Freeman) must take control of the Nation. Using his previous knowledge from his time with the President, Banning is able to infiltrate the locked down White House in hopes of rescuing Asher and stopping Kang before valuable codes and nuclear fail-safes are compromised and threaten the globe.
That indeed pretty much sums up Olympus Has Fallen, which has understandably been compared to classic action fair like Die Hard or Under Siege. Honestly, when I first saw the trailers and promotions several months ago, I was reminded not of Die Hard so much as a more obscure, cheesy film called Chain of Command. This White House under attack story from new writers Creighton Rothenberg and Katrin Benedikt is simplistic enough, but director Antoine Fugua (Training Day) unfolds all the places, characters, and situations nicely. Critical people are in peril – some are brave and heroic while others are stupid and make mistakes. The first hour of the film smartly layers this character angst, and one may even suspect Olympus Has Fallen has something more sinister up its sleeve. Despite a few surprises and the opportunity for more round table depth and crisis emotion from the excellent ensemble – which might have taken this flick to the next level – there’s no need to make this straightforward action tale too complex. The second half of the film dispenses with any possible subterfuge and sticks to a strictly procedural execution. The clock is ticking and predictable firefights and kicking butt has to happen – and this is where the Die Hard motifs are most apparent. There is some humor, catchy quips, and chuckle moments both intentional and unintentional, but any more wit or sarcasm might have been a total Die Hard rip off. It’s played serious and may be a little rough around the edges, but Olympus Has Fallen does exactly what it set out to do, no more and no less.
Granted, it’s preposterous that the mass movements and aviation logistics of these North Korean radicals would go unnoticed much less proceed as swiftly as they do to set Olympus Has Fallen in motion. However, even with a suspension of disbelief and over a decade on since 9/11, it is very difficult to watch such an effective, action packed terrorist attack on the White House. The large-scale but character based intensity may be outlandish and movie cool but it doesn’t resort to bombastic impossibilities every second ala Transformers. Thus, Olympus Has Fallen stays disturbingly real, graphic, and hard hitting. The expected action approach and systematic twists are entertaining in their heavy, if overly serious delivery and it’s pleasing to see a solid R rated film instead of a watered down PG-13 easy. Olympus Has Fallen stays smart with precious little blood and no over the top glorification of violence, but the editing feels uneven. Some scenes simply happen too fast to see all the action. This frenetic camera style works for the daylight attack action, but it’s tough for dark or nighttime scenes. Despite being a solid two hours, Olympus Has Fallen seems a bit too quick, with a hasty ending lacking in hugs, handshakes, ceremonies, or a literal picking up the pieces. A few more minutes of resolution might have gone a long way in resolving some of the characters left hanging.
He’s back! After toiling in the Hollywood banal with these crappy ass rom coms, 300 star Gerard Butler surprisingly fits the role of Mike Banning to a T. Yes, viewers immediately realize he’s not an American, but it almost doesn’t even matter. We believe Butler to start Olympus Has Fallen when all is cool for Banning just as we believe his disgrace and redeeming progression to kick ass. The character may be mostly superficial and not as sardonic as audiences may have hoped, but there’s nothing wrong with having a straightforward hero in a film like this. Banning’s secret service formalities and protocols are shed as the action gets down, dirty, and deadly, and Butler proves his special forces, one man killing machine presence and all around bad assery with some intense mano y mano fight scenes. There’s no need for a clichéd, over the top camouflage painting, shouting in the mirror muscle flexing, or beefing up weapons montage ala Rambo or Schwarzenegger here. It’s nice to have someone take names and save the day instead of the 21st century trend towards ambiguous, grey, anti-heroes taking things down dark and deep, too. Banning’s suave in a suit whether he’s stuck at a desk or killing bad guys with his bare hands and saving kids. What’s not to love? I do wish Butler could have used his natural Scottish accent, but nowadays one is accustomed to his in between American sound anyway. Unfortunately, there should have been more scenes with Banning’s onscreen wife Radha Mitchell (Pitch Black), who is doubly under utilized as a wife in crisis and a nurse on the frontlines of the terrorist trauma. It might be a bit much, but I dare say I’d like to see further Banning, Secret Service Detail sequels or adventures. Butler produced Olympus Had Fallen, after all, so why not? Let him making steady action yarns like this – as opposed to some of those erroneous, desperate comedies. Butler needs to reinvent himself with this action effectiveness, but he has to stop doing most of his own stunts. In addition to whatever health issues and Hollywood vices with which he may struggle, some of this stuff really has to hurt!
Although there isn’t much character development in Olympus Has Fallen, the supporting players deliver as expected. Angela Bassett (What’s Love Got to Do with It), Morgan Freeman (seriously?), and Melissa Leo (The Fighter) may each seem too big a talent for their respective roles, but they keep things entertaining when the camera is away from Butler. Iffy dialogue aside, Freeman shows his usual cool, with a touch of argument and crisis for good measure. Unfortunately, once each in the ensemble has his or her moment, they seem to disappear from the picture or have their stories easily resolved in a few scenes. Olympus Has Fallen hints to further scandal, intrigue, interactions, and emotion from these players, but as is, we get just enough to move the plot along. Cole Hauser (Ironically also of A Good Day to Die Hard) doesn’t get to do much, and although he’s good, the script fails Dylan McDermott (The Practice). Fortunately, Rick Yune (Die Another Day) as Kang adds some strong twists and suspense to what could easily have been clichéd villainy, but I’m not sure why his plans and most of Ashley Judd’s (Kiss the Girls) element are spoiled in the trailer. Aaron Eckhart (The Dark Knight) also suffers in the suave department, as he is, after all, a president taken hostage. Nonetheless, he delivers the tough lines whilst also keeping the family moments tender. In some ways, it feels like he and Butler make a good buddy team, and I wish there was a bit more back-story on their friendship. How did Banning and POTUS become friends? What if there had been a history between Banning and the First Lady? Why did Banning tell the Trumbull to go F himself? Touching upon these little things more would have added further dimension to Olympus Has Fallen, so here’s hoping there are some deleted scenes on the forthcoming DVD.
Action may be its primary focus, but Olympus Has Fallen has some surprisingly unfinished effects and CGI. Not only is some photography simply too dark, but the Washington Monument scenes look incomplete, even amateur. Tricks and a reliance on computer imagery to recreate the White House are also apparent, even if the subsequent destruction is eerily well done. Naturally, I imagine the security protocols, call signs, and nuclear specifications aren’t genuine, but the use of intercut news and media footage is awkward. CNN can get closer to the action then the Pentagon and national security decisions are made based upon our crisis center’s watching of this news coverage? Misspellings on the news scrolls and television screens are plain to see, too. Whoops! Thankfully, the helicopter action, plane explosions, and machine gun fire exceed expectations. Perhaps the lengthy shootouts, gunshot wounds, and triage scenes even feel too realistic – but Olympus Has Fallen must show this action realism in order for the audience to accept the eventual rah rah heroics. The man-to-man fight choreography is intense and very well done, if tough to see at times due to claustrophobic, close quarters locations or the aforementioned dark filming. However, these are blessedly not 3D fake, Matrix panoramic, overly lit, and seemingly unrealistic ninja standoffs. I’m so glad Olympus Has Fallen didn’t resort to stereotypical, racist martial arts fights on top of today’s often awe struck, over produced action. Blows are exchanged, shots are fired, kill moves are made, next. The design isn’t super high tech, either – although some of the basic flat screens, standard smart phones, and current computer technology depicted will surely be dated soon. The hash tag reference is also too of the moment and the brief video game appearances have a whiff of product placement. Mercifully, there isn’t as much cool gizmos, fictitious gadgetry, or pop culture crutches as there could be, and Olympus Has Fallen smartly keeps the action more mature, even traditional. Yes, why not have another eighties action hey day this century?
For those interested in the trailers along with Olympus Has Fallen, there wasn’t much for which I’d return to the theater to see. Monsters University had a fun, college commercial angle to it, but The Internship feels like the same old Vince Vaughn and Owen Wilson retread. How many times are these middle-aged guys going to hang around with the same twenty something college plot elements? After Earth does look very good, but Will and Jaden Smith’s paging Dr. Nepotism takes over its charm. Thankfully, Man of Steel looks promising. Of course, there was no trailer for that other Die Hard in the White House flick White House Down, hehe. Olympus Has Fallen is already available for pre order on blu-ray from Amazon – probably to keep it fresh in audiences’ minds as the R rated, badass, cheaper home video alternative now that White House Down is indeed afoot for the summer. Though it’s not uncommon to have annoyingly similar but different dual approaches in Hollywood – Mirror Mirror and Snow White and the Hunstman for example, or the musical Sweeney Todd compared to Ray Winstone’s straight adaptation – it is ridiculously bizarre to have two so similarly plotted films out at nearly the same time. Could Olympus Has Fallen have shaken itself up by making Banning an intriguingly traumatized secret service agent who messes up and bleakly doesn’t save the day? Haven’t we seen enough of that cynicism or forced political propaganda and self-referential heavy already? I really enjoyed Olympus Has Fallen’s win the day John Wayne modern hero and modestly mature if sometimes mindless action.
Terrorist violence, possible political controversies, and unevenly fleshed out but mostly straightforward telling notwithstanding, Olympus Has Fallen has been a box office success and a return to form for Gerard Butler. Audiences will shout at the screen during the White House takeover or call out other plot holes, but there were times when I was holding my breath at the intensity and smiling at the kick ass. This is either a film you love and can watch over and over or something you immediately hate and will not finish much less ever see again. Non-action fans or viewers expecting a complex political thriller will probably dislike Olympus Has Fallen, but old school action audiences and fans of the cast can delight here. Is Olympus Has Fallen a bad movie? No. Could it have been a heavy, emotional, political thriller? Sure, but this isn’t meant to be a statement making movie – even if the cast is here for such meaty. Take Olympus Has Fallen for what it is, a fictional, entertaining depiction of us kicking some butt.