Oscar Wilde once wrote “Life imitates Art far more than Art imitates Life”. Whilst that statement is up for debate, there is no denying that there is a lot of imitation between the plot of Olympus Has Fallen and current tensions on the Korean Peninsula.
After the First Lady perishes in an accident involving the President’s motorcade on a particularly icy evening, Secret Service agent Mike Banning (Gerard Butler) is demoted from an elite bodyguard in the White House to a generic paper pusher in the Treasury. Life goes on and he continues his less than exciting existence haunted everyday by his failure on that fateful night. Meanwhile, tensions either side of the border in Korea have reached boiling point and the premier of the South travels to the White House to hold emergency talks with President Asher (Aaron Eckhart) who is still feeling the loss of his wife. When all their enemies are in the same barrel, North Korea chooses its moment to strike and takes the White House along with all the senior members of the government: Olympus has fallen. And fallen hard. It falls upon Banning and Acting President Trumbull (Morgan Freeman) to save Asher before the North Koreans destroy the United States. It’s a plot that capitalises on the present situation in East Asia, albeit unintentionally (filming began in summer last year).
This film is very much Die Hard on steroids. However, where this film excels in death count, gore and destruction, it lacks the two things which made Die Hard a success. Namely, a likeable protagonist and a charismatic antagonist. Gerard Butler is up to the challenge physically and delivers the totally inappropriate one-liners with panache, but there’s just no connecting to a man who spends so much time (and relishes) beating Koreans to death with presidential busts, stabbing them in the brain and breaking their necks. Rick Yune resumes his typecast bad guy role (as per The Fast & The Furious and Die Another Day) as the terrorist leader, but just seems bored all the way through; as if taking the most guarded building and most powerful man in the world hostage is an everyday occurrence. The supporting cast in the form of Eckhart and Freeman buy into the cheesiness of it all and basically accept this is not a career highlight for any involved. The saving grace performance comes from Oscar winner Melissa Leo (Fighter) who has two genuinely tense scenes as the Secretary of State. But it is alarming just how much talent is on show for such little payoff.
The taking of Olympus is one of the most brutal sequences to splatter the screen in a while. Countless civilians and White House staff are peppered with bullets, crushed, stabbed and incinerated. This pace doesn’t let up, and anyone would be hard pressed to maintain a running death count. The North Koreans kick off their attack by air and one scene in particular has 9/11 connotations that are about as subtle as Bruce Willis with ten pounds of C4. And that pretty much sums up this film. It is meant to instil a sense of patriotism which is likely lost on any audience that isn’t American. With emotions fully stirred, an American audience may be more forgiving of a script that is clichéd, and main characters that have as much personality as the non-speaking Korean terrorists. What is truly more disturbing than the glorification of violence is the fact that sometimes it tries to be funny. These types of films have to be tongue in cheek to distil the ludicrousness of it all, but would a president really make a joke about house insurance while surrounded by the bodies of his staff? No, and it’s really jarring.
Unfortunately Olympus also suffers the ever increasing fault of action thrillers and relies too much on CGI, and not the good stuff either. It’s asking a little too much to destroy large parts of Washington DC for a film, but do we really need landscapes that look like they’ve been taken out of Sim City? And plane crashes from a flight simulator?
Director Antoine Fuqua (best known for Training Day and Shooter) handles the ensemble cast well but brings nothing new in terms of direction. Stuff blows up and blood is sprayed but it all goes through the motions. What we’re left with is a generic action thriller in line with Air Force One.
Ultimately it comes down to whether it#s worth seeing this. Was I bored? Not really, and if you’re lacking North Korean terrorists to kill and generic, gory action thrillers are your thing, you could do worse than spending two hours with this. But make no mistake, there’s nothing more to this. Unless you’re a patriotic American that it is.