At least someone still knows how to make “Die Hard” movies.
There is very little about “Olympus Has Fallen” that I would consider fresh or surprising, but Antoine Fuqua does a nice job of creating a certain degree of tension that he manages to sustain for most of the film’s running time, and as an action movie, it is satisfying. I am startled by a few major technical issues with the film, but for the most part, I enjoyed it as I watched.
On the other hand, if I take a step back and view it through any sort of political filter, it’s kind of horrifying. And considering where we are right now in our relationship with North Korea, the film feels ill-timed at best, downright inflammatory at worst. Last year’s terrible “Red Dawn” remake was too chuckleheaded to be taken seriously by anyone. “Olympus” follows a pretty familiar shape, and the extended opening sequence serves to set up Mike Banning (Gerard Butler), a Secret Service agent who is basically a surrogate member of the First Family. When we meet him, he’s in the boxing ring, sparring with President Benjamin Asher (Aaron Eckhart), who is wrapping up a family trip to Camp David so he can head out to a major fundraising event, his wife Margaret (Ashley Judd) and his son Connor (Finley Jacobsen) in tow. On the icy road as they head into town, there is a terrible car accident, and Banning makes a choice that ends with him being transferred permanently off the President’s detail.
As a result, when the White House is attacked by a well-organized and staggeringly well-informed North Korean terrorist cell, Banning isn’t there, and almost everyone working in the White House ends up dead. Banning is close enough that he sees what’s going down, and he heads right into the middle of things, drawn by duty and a need to redeem himself. The main terrorist, Kang (Rick Yune), has anticipated every possibility except for Banning, and once Banning gets inside, he proves himself to be the very best as what he does.
Yep. You’ve seen it before, and you’ll see it again later this year when “White House Down” is released, with Channing Tatum and Jamie Foxx in the leads. The script by Creighton Rothenberger & Katrin Benedikt is very direct, wasting no time in either set-up or pay-off. The film’s basic understanding of the workings of government and the military is very goofy and silly, but the cast plays it dead straight, which is the only way to make this really work. Butler ultimately has to carry this thing, and I suspect this will do exactly as much to make him a movie star as his last 40 films have done. I remember when I was speaking to Lauren Shuler-Donner about Butler while they were in production on “Timeline,” and she was the first person to tell me that it was just a matter of time before he would become one of the biggest movie stars alive. I heard the same thing repeatedly in the build-up to “The Phantom Of The Opera,” and once “300” opened to a surprisingly robust first weekend at the box-office, it felt like he finally had his shot.
Nothing’s really blown him up any bigger than that, though, and at this point, he seems to have settled into his role as the Rom Com dude you hire when Hugh Jackman’s not available, and in an action film, he’s the guy you get when the A-list is busy. He is perfectly fine in the lead here, but to me, this is a perfect example of why he isn’t a “true” movie star. Butler must be charming in person, and he certainly has a few moments here and there in the film where he nails a beat or where he manages to sell the action in some way. But there’s almost nothing he does that I would call special or truly memorable. It’s a performance I feel like a lot of people could have given, and with a movie star, we are drawn to them precisely because we can’t imagine anyone else doing what we see them do.
I would love to know the full story behind the film’s almost shocking terrible special effects. There are moments that look fine, but there are way more moments where it looks like not only are the effects not good, they’re not finished. I counted at least ten shots in the film where it looks like we’re seeing a rough image that hasn’t even been color timed properly, much less rendered completely. I can’t imagine the shots look the way director Antoine Fuqua wanted them to look, so why would they end up in the final release print of the film? Were they just locked into this date out of fear that the larger-budget “White House Down” might steal their thunder?
When you’ve got a cast that includes Aaron Eckhart, Dylan McDermott, Morgan Freeman, Angela Basset, Melissa Leo, and Radha Mitchell all in one film and I can’t name anything particularly good that any of them do, then that is obviously a problem. The few attempts at character development are transparent exposition, and really don’t help move the film forward at all. Fuqua’s at his best here when he’s staging the big set pieces, but even then, I’m surprised how non-stop and brutal some of the violence is. If you’re making a film like this, I’d rather see it be more of a cartoon. The real-world tensions that are being used to motivate the action in the film are important enough that I feel like trying to make this feel “real” is a bad idea in general right now.
I enjoyed the fact that this plays a pretty skillful riff on the “Die Hard” model, and yet I don’t feel good about it. Fuqua definitely knows his way around an action film, but I wish he’d figured out how to tell a good story at the same time.
“Olympus Has Fallen” opens everywhere today.