Olympus Has Fallen (2013)
[Note from the editor: This review was submitted by prospective staff writer Steven Patsel. Enjoy!]
Olympus Has Fallen is one of two 2013 entries in the prestigious “White House Under Siege” genre of movies. In it, North Korean terrorists take control of the White House, holding President Asher (Aaron Eckhart) hostage and demanding that the U.S. withdraw its troops from South Korea. It’s up to ex-Secret Service agent Mike Banning (Gerard Butler) to infiltrate the White House and stop the terrorists, rescue Asher and his son, and save the day. And if you aren’t proud to be an American by the end of this movie, then… chances are you walked out halfway through.
For an action movie, it at least knows what it is, and what the people want, opting to get the ball rolling with some intense scenes fairly early on. The movie opens with the First Lady (Ashley Judd) being tragically killed when her car plummets off a bridge near Camp David. This leads to Agent Banning being reassigned to desk duty for some reason. It’s not like he was driving, or he pushed her off the bridge or anything, but whatever, at least now Mike’s got something to prove. (Though ultimately, his demotion is pointless, because when the White House assault goes down, he just strides onto the scene of a national disaster as if he were still in the service.)
Cut to 18 months later, and before the real action starts, the movie establishes the President’s rapport with his young son, just before he meets with the South Korean ambassador. That’s when a big bomber jet suddenly appears in the skies over Washington, D.C., with guns blazing away at random people on the streets below.
It soon becomes clear that the military in this movie is painfully incompetent—especially given their inability to protect one of the most important cities in the entire United States. For starters, it seems a bit too difficult for the nimble and supposedly high-tech Air Force jets to take down a giant, hulking bomber plane. Granted, the plane does seem to be decked out with some modifications, but in the end, it still only takes one jet to shoot the plane down. And just where was this jet while all that carnage was happening? Does the military suffer from selective incompetence?
Even worse, when they finally shoot the plane down, it crashes into the Washington Monument, which then collapses and kills dozens of tourists.
Mike Banning comes out of his office (which is right across the street, of course) just in time to see Korean suicide bombers blow a hole in the White House fence. An entire squad of terrorists then shoots their way into the White House, killing all Secret Service agents and pretty much everybody else inside.
While this is happening, the President and his staff are quickly hustled into an underground bunker, and they decide to bring the Korean ambassador’s people along with them, even though we’re told this is against protocol. There, it’s revealed that the ambassador’s staff is mostly made up of terrorists, including a super-badass named Kang (played by Die Another Day’s Rick Yune) who ties everybody up and starts killing them one by one.
He demands the withdrawal of U.S. troops from South Korea, but he’s really after the codes to a top secret failsafe device that can cause all American nuclear missiles to self-destruct. The existence of which, by the way, seems to have slipped the minds of everyone in the executive chain of command who should have known about it. Oh, and the only three people who know these codes just happen to be trapped together in the bunker along with the terrorist leader. Geez, these people break protocol, and then wonder why everything goes to hell in a hand basket.
Morgan Freeman plays the Speaker of the House, who’s suddenly forced to become Acting President because—sigh—both the President and Vice President are down in the bunker together. And of course, he doesn’t seem to have a clue how to handle this emergency. Luckily for him, Banning on his own is more capable than an entire army at mounting a rescue mission.
The rampant incompetence on the part of everyone who’s not Banning significantly detracts from the quality of the film. Disbelief can only be suspended so far, and for the writers to keep pushing the limits of said disbelief results in an unsavory mix of “serious” action that’s constantly undermined by the seeming lack of good judgment by all parties involved. Though, being unbelievable is the least of the movie’s worries.
Despite the rather high-profile cast, including Freeman, Eckhart, Angela Bassett, Robert Forster, and Melissa Leo, a feeling of cheapness pervades Olympus Has Fallen. Everything looks flat and gray, and using Shreveport to stand in for Washington doesn’t help matters. It feels like someone at the last minute decided to pour a ton of money into what was originally meant to be a direct-to-video actioner. The budget was $70 million, though it’s difficult to tell where all that money went. It certainly didn’t go towards hiring a proofreader, given the following chyron that appears throughout the movie. Shouldn’t that be “terrorists”, plural?
Patriotism is sprinkled throughout the movie with the delicacy of a salt shaker with an unscrewed cap. It’s hard to get immersed in the oh-so-gripping drama that’s going on when every other shot is of some tattered American flag, or a shot of the crumbling Washington Monument. Not even the opening title is exempt, what with it being superimposed over an image of a waving American flag. The fact that most of the movie takes place on July 5th (as opposed to Independence Day) is about as restrained as it gets.
The absolute best scene, though, has to be when the Secretary of Defense (Leo) is being dragged around and tortured, and she begins reciting the Pledge of Allegiance. It’s just so bluntly chauvinistic that it can’t be taken seriously, or however the writers intended it to be taken. Unless it truly was for comedic relief, in which case they hit the nail on the head. There were times when I wondered if this film was actually a subtle parody of patriotic action movies, because surely nobody could be this shameless about it.
In fact, most of the movie is so overly dramatic that it wraps back around to silly. There’s something to be said for our hero Mike Banning using a bust of Lincoln’s head to kill one of the terrorists. The movie is caught in some strange limbo between being intentionally very grave, but at the same time firing off cheesy one-liners with reckless abandon.
Looking past the dichotomous writing (the plot isn’t the big selling point, after all), the action itself isn’t too bad. Any kind of action you could possibly want is in here: gunfights, hand-to-hand combat, rocket launchers, surface-to-air missiles, etc. The initial raid on the White House is chock full of enough bloody violence to hold anybody’s interest. There’s also plenty of tense atmosphere as Banning sneaks around the secret tunnels built into the White House, trying to smuggle out Asher’s son before turning his attention to catching Kang. Even if it is unbelievable, the action more or less meets expectations, making it one of the movie’s stronger points.
Olympus has fallen, alright: fallen short. The action is satisfying, but much like the majority of director Antoine Fuqua’s efforts, the film doesn’t really leave a lasting impact, and it certainly doesn’t inspire a second viewing. The plot tries to be an intense drama, but just ends up being laughably absurd. And it goes without saying that the patriotism could have been toned down a few notches. Sure, it is a movie about the United States’ capital falling to terrorists, but there were certainly more subtle ways of going about it.
If mundane action flicks are your thing, then by all means pick up a copy. It might be worth a watch just for the comedic value it holds, but otherwise it is by no means noteworthy.
[—This review contains additional material by Dr. Winston O’Boogie.]