It’s so strange seeing so many critics making obvious, sometimes favourable comparisons to Die Hard in their reviews of the first of two “White House under siege” movies this year, Olympus Has Fallen. To be fair, it is the basic “X is under attack and only one man can stop it” storyline, but comparing director Antoine Fuqua’s latest to a John McClane film is like comparing terminal cancer to winning the lottery. It’s a bland, unimaginative, cut-rate production that has no business being mentioned in the same breath as the film it’s trying to clone. That is, unless, they’re all referring to this year’s dreadful A Good Day to Die Hard. Then the comparison is pretty appropriate.
18 months after a tragic car accident involving the president (Aaron Eckhart) sees him removed from his previous detail and put into a desk job at the treasury, Secret Service agent Mike Banning (Gerard Butler) watches as the White House and all of it’s staff are laid to waste in a tactical assault led by a North Korean extremist (Rick Yune) and a former agent with an axe to grind (Dylan McDermott). The president, his VP, and various other cabinet members are being held hostage in the underground war room and only Banning remains standing to take out the terrorist scum.
The biggest problem with Olympus is Down is that it isn’t even remotely fun to watch. It’s a ludicrously idiotic plot that Fuqua (Training Day, Shooter) is taking far too seriously. Instead of toying and playing with genre conventions and stereotypes or even approximating anything new and fresh, Fuqua uses the story as a harebrained sounding board for obvious symbolism and grotesquely unamusing violent shootouts. By the time the 18th lovingly crafted, CGI blood spurting head shot comes up roughly 40 minutes into the film (amid a horrendously shot, edited, lit, composited, and staged fire fight on the North Lawn) it loses all sense of meaning and just becomes plodding instead of giddily entertaining or even offensive.
Add to this the fact that it takes a full hour just to find its footing. Aside from one of the worst looking airplane dogfights this side of an Asylum production, the serious tone of the film’s opening hour represents the worst form of American jingoism. It’s not like something like Battleship – which knew how ridiculous it was and had aliens for villains. It’s a film about terrorism that delights in watching civilians and soldiers get cut down wholesale for long periods of time, and since it’s in service of a story that can be resolved – and in real life would have been resolved – within seconds, it’s infinitely frustrating to watch.
A great action film (or even a fun, cheesy, kinda bad one) will allow the audience to not nitpick and ask stupid questions as it goes on. A low budget and a heartattack inducing level of pride on the part of the filmmakers is a deadly combination. Not once is it ever remotely believable that these characters are anywhere near the White House. Why else would most of the film take place virtually in the dark and literally within the walls, catacombs, and war rooms of one of the most visually recognizable buildings in the world? Because if you’re a cynical director and you shoot in a warehouse and shut all the lights off you deep down think your audience will be too stupid to figure out that you don’t even have the budget to come up with a better fake setting than this. Throw in some quick cut editing that makes every fight scene and shoot out incomprehensible, a body count that ludicrously reaches possibly the thousands, and the fact that they aren’t even trying to cover up that all that’s being blown up is plywood and balsa wood models, and it becomes hard to care or be engaged about anything going on.
After about an hour it actually does become the action movie it probably should have been from the start, but it’s one that robs a talented cast of any of the charisma they can bring to the table. Butler is definitely a credible action hero and he can pull off this kind of material, but his pithy one-liners come far too late and sparingly into the film for such a threadbare character to warrant much good will. Eckhart only glowers and grunts for most of the time. Morgan Freeman shows up as the Speaker of the House and acting president, but he can’t do anything since the function of his character is to simply move the plot along by giving Banning his marching orders. Angela Bassett is admittedly decent as the Secret Service leader, and McDermott brings the panache the rest of the movie is missing his hammy, villainous role. He’s the only one that seems to be attempting anything remotely approximating fun here, but he’s also tragically underused.
I could keep going on about how a subplot involving the president’s kid is only there to add pointless child-in-peril theatrics that never once pay off. I can talk about how the film can’t even find interesting or even campy ways to explain why the villains suddenly and illogically change their plan out of left field towards the end. I could drone on about how the “wisecracks” are never more than people just saying various forms of “fuck you” to each other. I could even say that the film would have been a lot shorter and made more sense if the villains just shot the president first, but I digress. This has gone on for far too long (much like the film did).
Instead, let me sum up the M.O. of the film in a single scene. A previously battered, bruised, and bloodied female chief of staff is seemingly being dragged to her own execution by baddies. It’s a low angle shot and she’s being dragged by the arms. Apropos of nothing she’s crying and stating the Pledge of Allegiance while leaving a bloody trail behind her. If that’s your idea of fun, then don’t let me stop you.
Cast: Gerard Butler, Aaron Eckhart, Morgan Freeman, Melissa Leo
Directed by: Antoine Fuqua
Top image: A scene from Olympus Has Fallen. Courtesy VVS Films.