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Non-Review Review: Olympus Has Fallen

It’s easy to see why Die Hard is such a popular action movie template. It’s a formula that is very hard to do wrong. Sure, you might end up with a clumsy and disjointed mess of movie, but the format of man trying to save hostages in a base under siege is so straight-forward that it’s almost always an effective vehicle for an action film. Olympus Has Fallen takes that familiar movie outline and rigidly adheres to it. After all, once you’ve figured out the formula, all you have to do is plug in a few variables and a movie practically makes itself. As compared to a boat or a train or in a stadium, Olympus Has Fallen at least has ambition. It’s Die Hard in a White House.

It’s a clumsily constructed film, one that doesn’t excel at anything and fumbles at quite a few things. However, there’s only so far you can screw up a formula and Olympus Has Fallen winds up being a watchable, if very far from exceptional, mid-tier action film.

"Look, this is what happens when terrorists attack while Bruce Willis is on holiday..."

“Look, this is what happens when terrorists attack while Bruce Willis is on holiday…”

The basic outline of the plot evokes comparison to Die Hard, but Olympus Has Fallen has turned emulation into a fine art. Protagonist who is good at his job but crap at being a husband? Check. Well-dressed villain versus rugged hero? You betcha. Scene where the good guy and the bad guy enjoy a smoke together, with the good guy not realising he has been duped until something small gives the game away? Naturally. The hero facing some measure of resistance from the authority outside the hostage situation, despite the fact he’s repeatedly saving their asses? Sure. Ill-advised third-act attempt by those outside forces to resolve the situation using a rooftop assault involving helicopter gunships? Of course.

There’s more, but I don’t want to get too spoiler-y. Basically, it seems like Olympus Has Fallen was a script very consciously attempting to mimic the Die Hard template. And there’s nothing wrong with that. We’ve had decades of films trying to replicate that formula to varying degrees of success, and setting such a movie in the White House is at least an interesting enough deviation from formula. The problem is that this deviation creates as many problems as it offers opportunities.

White House Down... oh, wait, that's the other one...

White House Down… oh, wait, that’s the other one…

There’s a very strong sense of jingoism to the film, which probably shouldn’t be too surprising. This is a movie featuring the White House and the President of the United States. There’s a certain amount of patriotism expected. I’m actually quite fond of that hokey brand of American patriotism underscoring great action films like Air Force One or Independence Day or even television shows like The West Wing. There are moments in Olympus Has Fallen which seem to channel that sort of idealistic “gung-ho” attitude. At one point, in an emergency briefing, General Edward Clegg boasts, “We got the best f$%!in’ guys in the world.” And we watch the military men around him nod, proudly.

However, Olympus Has Fallen seems a little short-sighted. Naturally, those nasty North Koreans are at it again, just like they were in Red Dawn. Sure, the plot is ambiguous on the matter, suggesting that North Korea isn’t explicitly behind this attack. It’s just an attack by a terrorist cell that will happen to offer a massive advantage to North Korea if it comes off successfully. The plan, as the villains initially outline it, is to force a military withdrawal of all American forces from South Korea.

Kang the conqueror?

Kang the conqueror?

This would, you imagine, have very serious effects on South Korea – arguably far greater than any impact it might have on America. However, Olympus Has Fallen just uses North and South Korea as plot points, an excuse to do “Die Hard in the White House.” The initial attack not only leads to the capture of the President of the United States and several high-ranking American officials, but also the capture and murder of some equivalently important South Korean individuals.

By the end of the film, we’re not actually sure if the United States has bothered to inform the South Korean government of what is going on. Sure, there’s talk of making phonecalls to various world powers, like the British or the Russians, but South Korea is never really mentioned or featured despite the fact that bad guy’s plot would seem to have even great implications for that country than for the United States. More than that, though, the movie tips its hand in the final act, when it turns out the villain has an evil plan with will directly affect Americans. It seems that Olympus Has Fallen doesn’t trust us to treat the threat of the complete collapse of a democratic non-American political entity seriously enough.

Giving Dylan McDermott's career a shot in the arm?

Giving Dylan McDermott’s career a shot in the arm?

Still, it’s kinda interesting to see the White House – one of those locations engrained on the collective pop consciousness – in a state of complete disrepair, and there’s a decidedly pulpy charm to see one of the most recognisable locations on the planet used in a rather unconventional way. Of course, I might have liked a bit more of the architectural archeology of the place – it would be fun to see the movie take a swing towards Home Alone in the White House, using various hidden passages or design features. But you take what you can get.

While working so hard to emulate Die Hard, it seems like Olympus Has Fallen seemed to miss out on the classic action movie’s wit. One of the biggest problems with Olympus Has Fallen is just how unrelentingly grim and dark it is. That’s literally as well as figuratively, with a lot of scenes taking place at night or in shadows. There are lots of lives at stake, and the villain is a psychopathic mad man, but Olympus Has Fallen takes itself entirely too seriously. When the film spends several minutes watching Rick Yune beating up Melissa Leo, rendered with copious amounts of blood, it seems like perhaps things have gone a bit too far. Surely he could just have kicked a puppy?

Under (White) House arrest...

Under (White) House arrest…

Die Hard worked in a large part due to the charisma of Bruce Lee and Alan Rickman. Rick Yune and Gerard Butler don’t have that sort of charm, and the script doesn’t help. Die Hard had a wonderful knack for profane wit. The oft-quoted catchphrase is a great example, and McClane is one of the great sarcastic bad asses. In contrast, Butler gets saddled with lines like “you know what? let’s a play a game of %$#! off… you go first.” There are moments of absurdity, with Butler turning the Oval Office into his gun room, but you’re never entirely sure the film is in on the gag.

Like G.I. Joe: Retaliation, Olympus Has Fallen does an interesting job of incorporating 9/11 and terrorism-related imagery. Here, a suicide mission involving an aircraft starts the movie’s crisis, and the initial siege on the White House involves civilians wear balaclavas and using RPG’s. There is a cursory nod here or there to the financial crisis, but it’s purely superficial. When a traitor is asked why he would betray his country, he accuses the President of selling out. Globalisation!” he yells. “Wall Street!” Although he never quite gets a coherent motivation, he does offer a few clichés about selling out to various interests. (“How much does it cost to buy an election?”)

Hardly blown away by it all...

Hardly blown away by it all…

Instead, the bulk of the bad guys are terrorists using insurgent tactics and upset with America’s foreign policy. It’s interesting how much the imagery in mainstream blockbusters seems to have moved back to the War on Terror, incorporating imagery associated with that period. (The Avengers featured an attack on New York destroying several skyscrapers and leading to an impromptu memorial.) Does this suggest that the American zeitgeist is ready to handle these images as part of blockbuster entertainment? Or perhaps that the financial crisis has replaced this sort of terror as the primary concern for Americans, rendering this sort of iconography safe for casual consumption? I don’t know, but it’s interesting to think about.

Still, while Olympus Has Fallen is hardly an exceptional execution of what has become a genre template, there are a few marks in its favour. Aaron Eckhart and Morgan Freeman make for a solid supporting cast. Freeman gives his supporting role more gravitas than it really warrants, and Eckhart is perfectly suited to the role of a President who exists more as an ideal than as a character. His strong jaw and distinctively handsome features give Eckhart an appeal that makes him easy to buy as a charming Commander-in-Chief.

Eckhart to Eckhart...

Eckhart to Eckhart…

Still, none of these elements add up to much. The main accomplishment of Olympus Has Fallen is the fact that it doesn’t completely mess up an action movie standard. It never really finds its own feet, or its own voice, and it suffers from taking itself too seriously. However, those in search of light popcorn entertainment expecting nothing more than a Die Hard knock-off in the White House should leave satisfied.

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3 Responses

  1. “Kang the conqueror?” Haha 😀

  2. Hey
    I just got my own teen movie blog up and running. I’d really appreciate if you took a look around. http://www.cinemaangel.wordpress.com
    Thanks 😀

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