Olympus Has Fallen
Acceptable in the 80s.
Gerard Butler needs our help. He is struck by a terrible affliction that is causing him to gradually slip back in time, and if something isn’t done to cure his ailment soon there is a real risk he’s going to end up causing a lot of mischief.
Currently Gerard is stuck in 1992. The reason we know this is because Olympus Has Fallen, in which he single-handedly saves the White House from terrorist infestation, is clear evidence of him never having seen an action movie since Under Siege. Actually, swap the U.S.S. Missouri for the White House, give the terrorists an even less likely MO in their takeover scheme and Olympus Has Fallen pretty much is that seminal Segal moment, albeit with a lot less convincing action, a lot less fun, and arguably less production value. And let me be clear here; I don’t mean “is" Under Siege in the sense that that movie “was” Die Hard on a boat, I mean “is” as in “is”.
The plot, if you feel it would be of benefit to know, has a splinter faction of the North Korean forces assault and gain entry to the White House by means of a plan that relies primarily on dream logic. Lead by the devious Kang (Rick Yune), these naughty terrorists enact a plan to extract three nuclear launch codes (yawn) from the President and other high-ranking members of his staff. If you are thinking this sounds like the kind of plan that can only be thwarted by one man, preferably a disgraced former Secret Service agent who was once best buddies and sparring partner to the President until he made a vital yet tragic split second decision that cost the life of the First Lady and has recurring flashbacks about it even to this day and nobody has spoken to him since but fortunately he is in Washington at the time of the attack and somehow manages to overcome the odds that everybody else succumbs to in gaining entry to the besieged building in order that he can employ his deadly skillset and save the day by shooting everybody in the face and earning his redemption then guess what? You’re in luck!
Mike Banning (for it is he of whom I speak) is a man in need of redemption, and Kang just gave him the chance to get back in the President’s good books or die trying. Except we already know he wont die. You see Mike is old school Secret Service and the kind of guy who never misses a headshot, and that’s a skill that comes in very handy when you have to take on forty heavily armed and determined terrorists with nothing but a service pistol. In the film’s boldest attempt to set new standards in action movies, Banning doesn’t even quip all that much when he kills people, apart from one scene in which he attempts to extract information from two captive bad guys by stabbing one of them in the head whilst laughing. Ho ho!
Actually, OHF has something of a fascination with knifing people in the skull, almost to the point where one might worry that Butler is inadvertently affording us a glimpse through the window of his own troubled psyche. Indeed at one stage Banning video calls Kang to tell him “I’m going to stick my knife in your brain”, adding that he’s going to leak pictures to the press because “you know, you like that shit.” On the evidence presented one wonders that Butler might not be addressing himself on that last point.
But listen, all of this sarcasm aside we know that Butler and co aren’t gunning for statues. The question is can they deliver effectively on visceral thrills in an age where an action movie with a BBFC 15 certificate can be considered a brave financial gamble, and unfortunately the answer is “no”. Olympus Has Fallen best serves to remind us that other movies (the Bourne trilogy immediately springs to mind) have done so much more with less, and that merely adding copious puffs of red mist with each gunshot and sticking a few knives in peoples’ heads does not an “adult” action movie make. It simply isn’t enough to run down a check list and tick some boxes if you got your check list from 1985, and where OHF seems to think credibility and depth come from simply sticking rigidly to convention it is, in actuality, choosing to stick a red and white flashing “dunce” hat on it’s own head.
Take Branning’s wife, played by Radha Mitchell. Radha Mitchell is a fine actress, and her inclusion here might lead you to think that she’d serve some sort of function in the plot, right? Wrong. At one point Kang mentions her character to banning, mocking how nice it is that she is working in the local hospital right at that moment. Shit! Kang’s going to kill Banning’s wife, putting him at parity with the President and fuelling a blistering denouement! Oh, wait, no. Banning’s wife is never mentioned again by Kang. They must have forgotten about it. Mmmm, well, no. One comes to realise Banning has a wife because so did John McClane in Die Hard, and that movie was great so this will obviously make our movie better too, right? Ditto a scene where Banning pulls shrapnel from his side. Everyone talks about how John McClane made Die Hard great because rather than being invincible he was vulnerable, like when he pulled the glass from his feet, so if we have a scene where Banning pulls shrapnel from his side and winces a bit that will make our movie at least as good as Die hard!
Antoine Fuqua proved that as a director he can handle those kinds of visceral thrills when he teamed up with Mark Wahlberg for the surprisingly effective Shooter, and while that movie never quite reinstated the faith he evoked when Training Day filled the silverware cabinet it did go some way to suggesting that King Arthur might have been more of a forgivable misstep than a collapse into ruin. Alas OHF once again proves otherwise with it’s mix of derivative, unfulfilling and lazy nods to genre requirements, suggesting that as a director for hire Fuqua is often more interested in joining the dots and collecting his stack of cash than serving any artistic instinct.
There will undoubtedly be those for whom this movie is a perfectly acceptable Saturday night in, and for whom a lack of sophistication coupled with a reliance on touchstones that were already worryingly tired over two decades ago is not a hindrance so long as enough people get shot in the head. In much the same way I, for all of my critical faculties, still sometimes laugh at a fart joke these people are entitled to cheer Butler on in his charisma-free endeavours to wipe out the Bad People From Another Country. I, regrettably, shall not be joining them, for when it comes to action movies I’m afraid I like a lot more substance than Olymous Has Fallen seems to have been able to distil from over thirty years of research material.
Aaron Eckhart (President Asher)
Rick Yune (Kang)