Director; Antoine Fuqua
This review originally appeared on Ramp.ie
Ah, the halcyon days of the 1980s and ‘90s. Back then, your average blockbuster would blow up half a dozen buildings and boast an average 4.5 steely stares* directly to the camera from the villain and 6.7 quips* from the leading man. After 9/11, these tropes seemed mawkish at best and distasteful at worst. We grew accustomed to having unrealistic superheroes and their villains trash cities instead (See Spider-Man 2 or Batman Begins for prime examples), but now we’ve come full circle. Once again, we can demolish great symbols of US pride and patriotism thanks to old-fashioned faceless terrorists and their silly plan for global annihilation. Or can we? Whether we can or not, White House Down comes out later this year, and in the meantime Olympus Has Fallen brings down half the tourist attractions in Washington with little compunction. By the end of the film, the Washington Monument will be as bent out of joint as Aaron Eckhart’s all-American chin.
The villains in Olympus Has Fallen are a North Korean faction who aim to trigger North-South conflict by forcing US President Asher (Aaron Eckhart) to withdraw all troops from Korea, having taken him hostage after storming and seizing the White House. Given the recent tensions between the US, North Korea and their neighbours to the South, this isn’t so much ‘on the nose’ as ‘right between the eyes’. One could give the screenwriters and director Antoine Fuqua (Training Day) credit for grappling with real-time crises in a major mainstream release. However, incisive satire is not the m.o. of Olympus Has Fallen.
In actuality, this is a fairly rote example of the kind of dumb high-concept filler someone like Wesley Snipes would have made pre-tax evasion. This time, the lead is Gerard Butler as Mike Banning, a Secret Service agent who has a less-than-rosy relationship with the Prez. A prologue reveals the tragic events behind their antipathy in an attempt to elicit audience sympathies. It’s hard to manufacture empathy when a character dies within five minutes, especially when you consider the bloodshed that’s about to follow. The White House is about to turn distinctly red.
The storming of the White House plays like Kim Jong-Un’s wet dream. Masked Korean shooters have a gun battle on the White House’s north lawn with Secret Service agents while a North Korean plane shoots up downtown Washington in a blitz of kamikaze gung-ho and shaky CGI. The aforementioned shootout is easily won by the Koreans, who appear to kill EVERY single Secret Service agent at the President’s disposal (except for Gerard Butler, of course). For the rest of the film, the corridors and grounds of the White House are littered with bullet-ridden corpses. If this were the early ‘90s, and we did have Wesley Snipes as the lead, we might have been entertained (Mass Murder at 1600, anyone?). Alas, this is high-concept in the mould of True Lies married to post-9/11 filmmaking. That means the post-attack mood must be sombre, all punches should come with a sickening crunch and a ripped Stars and Stripes must hover into shot ad nauseam.
Any levity, or at least any reminder that things might turn out alright, comes from Morgan Freeman as Speaker of the House/acting president Trumbull. He and Angela Basset’s Secret Service head keep in contact with Banning as he infiltrates the newly-annexed 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. In the meantime, the talented likes of Robert Forster, Dylan McDermott and Melissa Leo (army general/Secret Service agent/Defence Secretary, respectively) spout some innocuous dialogue in a build-up to an inevitable face-off between Banning and terrorist leader Kang (Rick Yune, all sneer and veneer). Kang is a by-product of the Die Hard years: a villain with absolutely no interest in anything but his goals. Shorn of empathy, he’s just an empty cypher. For proof, watch as the soundtrack horns blare in a shot where he removes his glasses whilst looking at the camera. Bad guy alert! Alan Rickman would have him for breakfast.
Butler is gravelly and Eckhart is dignified and, just like their casting, Olympus Has Fallen has few surprises, except perhaps for its grating sincerity. A few flashes of humour threaten to seep in, but then the White House gets a few more chunks blown out of it and there’s no more fun to be had. After Olympus Has Fallen, you could find yourself longing for the insouciance of that threatened sequel to Independence Day.
* Research into these figures is inconclusive**.
** By ‘inconclusive’, we mean ‘non-existent’.