Olympus has Fallen

Posted: April 19, 2013 in Film reviews

Directed by Antoine Fuqua. Starring Gerard Butler, Aaron Eckhart, and Morgan Freeman

It’s hard to believe that prior to the late 1980s there was no such genre as Die Hard on a…’insert building/form of transport here’. Although Die Hard wasn’t the first film about someone fighting back against a hostile takeover (take the 1977 adaptation of Alistair MacLean’s Golden Rendezvous for example) it quickly created a shorthand all of its own, prompting numerous follow ups such as Under Siege (Die Hard on a boat) and Passenger 57 (Die Hard on a plane)
A lesser known trope is the President in Peril, Americans love to see their Commander in Chief in trouble, see; Escape from New York, Independence Day and, of course, Airforce One (which is also Die Hard on a plane, again). Now Antoine Fuqua, director of the fantastic Training Day, gives us Die Hard in the White House.

Mike Banning (Butler) is a member of the Presidential Security Detail and also, oddly, the President’s sparring partner. During a snow storm near Camp David at the start of the film he makes a judgement call that, whilst probably right, sees him removed from the security detail and transferred to a desk job in the Treasury.

Flash forward 18 months and, at a time of heightened tension in Korea (spooky eh) President Asher (Eckhart) receives a delegation from South Korea. Unfortunately not all of them are what they seem, and when a spectre gunship launches an attack on the White House the President and his guests are ushered into the safety of an underground bunker, which becomes less that safe when and Kang (Rick Yune) is reveals he’s not a South Korean diplomat after all, he’s a North Korean (although handily not officially sanctioned) terrorist.

With the President a hostage and the White House overrun with terrorists, it’s up to Banning (luckily working next door so he avoids being massacred) to sneak in and…and well do the whole Bruce Willis thang.

Where to start… I heard an interview with Butler a few weeks ago where he made it clear that they’d been very careful to tone down the flag waving, and for this not to be overly jingoistic. All I can say is, if they toned it down what was it like before! From the Stars and Stripes being riddled with bullet holes to Old Glory being tossed off the roof in sickeningly cgi’d slow motion, this is a film that wears its patriotism on its sleeve. Actually that’s not strictly true. This is a film that punches you in the face with its patriotism…then probably stabs you through the brain with it.

Tonally the film never seems quite sure where it stands. On the one hand its brutal violence and harsh language makes for a refreshing change after the watered down A Good Day to Die Hard, but any impact is diluted by the utterly preposterousness of its plot. That the White House could be seized is silly enough (relying on everyone and their uncle being incompetent fools, from fighter pilots to highly trained presidential security personnel) but this is compounded by the revelation of Kang’s true agenda, compromising the Cerebus system, an idea so daft it belongs in a Bond pastiche.

Silly is fine, some of my favourite films have preposterous plots, but if you do it you have to acknowledge what you’re doing, even if it’s just a sly wink to the audience. Olympus has Fallen, by contrast, plays it completely straight, in fact it’s so po-faced that at (quite a lot of) times it strays perilously close to comedic, with cringe worthy dialogue tumbling from character’s lips with alarming regularity.

Butler is an effective one man army, though I’ve never quite understood how he keeps getting lead roles because he’s hardly the most charismatic actor out there. Aside from his actions at the start of the film he’s portrayed as a man who’s always right, a man who never really seems in any actual danger, so much so that his wiping out of the terrorists almost becomes mundane at times. It still amazes me that Hollywood just doesn’t seem to get what is so seminal about Die Hard (and it’s a fair comparison to make given this film SO wants to be Die Hard). John McClane isn’t a superman, he isn’t a one man army. Mike Banning is exactly the guy you’d want to be on the inside during a situation like this, which sadly makes him far less interesting than the John McClanes of this world, and Butler’s lucky if he has half the charisma of Willis.

Not that there’s anything wrong per se with super human action heroes, but again if this were an Arnie or a Steven Seagal film there’d be the odd knowing wink. Olympus has Fallen feels like someone tried to remake Moonraker in the style of Casino Royale. Case in point, at one stage Banning kills a man with a bust of Abraham Lincoln…it’s a moment crying out for a one liner, not necessarily “Emancipate this!” but at the very least a “Sorry, Mr President.” There’s nothing.

Eckhart is an actor I like a lot, but he’s miscast here, all jutting chin and bulging eyed frustration, and his speech at the end, if nothing else, serves to remind us what a great movie president Bill Pullman actually was in Independence Day.

Morgan Freeman slips into gravitas mode as the Speaker of the House who becomes acting president. Frankly Freeman can do this in his sleep, and he’s wasted in the role. Rick Yune recycles his North Korean bad guy from Die Another Day (I’m sure he must be able to do something else) and, whilst lacking the charisma of a Rickman or an Irons, he is at least genuinely threatening, even if the script’s idea of depth is to have him occasionally talk about starving millions. Robert Forster as an army general constantly on Banning’s back and Angela Bassett as Butler’s former boss round out the cast, but only Bassett really comes out with any credit.

It’s not all bad, I never felt the need to check my watch which suggests I was never bored, and I’ve certainly seen duller action films and, if nothing else, it did make me giggle (even if it was usually for all the wrong reasons) it’s just a shame that a film with such a great premise, made by a very good director, should misfire quite as much.

Olympus has Fallen…about laughing probably…

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