Silver Screen: Olympus Has Fallen zero stars
Speaking of thrillers with a premise that exists on the border between brilliant and ridiculous, Olympus Has Fallen boasts a core concept that’s sublimely simple to summarize: Die Hard in the White House. As ideas for silly action movies go, it’s a whopper, yet in the hands of director Antoine Fuqua it turns both somber and stupid and is a failure on nearly every level.
Bad-movie king Gerard Butler (The Ugly Truth, Playing for Keeps, Law Abiding Citizen, Gamer, The Bounty Hunter, and most recently Movie Forty-three) stars as former Secret Service agent Mike Banning, who was dismissed from duty after he allowed the First Lady to die in order to save the life of cartoon President Benjamin Asher (Aaron Eckhart). Banning is working a security job in Washington, D.C. when North Korean terrorists attack the White House from within and without. A plane strafes the building while armed assailants shoot their way in through the front door; simultaneously, double-agents inside make use of the chaos to take the President hostage in his impenetrable underground bunker along with the Secretary of Defense (Melissa Leo) and several other cabinet members.
Mike gains access to the shattered White House with remarkable ease. Luckily for him, none of the security codes have been changed in the last eighteen months, so he’s able to gain access to restricted areas and find a ready supply of weapons. He’s the only American agent inside, so he wages a one-man war to save the Commander-in-Chief while the Speaker of the House (Morgan Freeman), serving as the acting president during the crisis, lends him support from outside.
The best part of any disaster movie is the disaster itself, and Olympus Has Fallen borrows heavily from existing iconography. (This isn’t the first time we’ve seen the White House demolished, after all.) Passersby point and stare open-mouthed at the sky, ominous music plays, computer-generated fireballs blossom as national monuments are spectacularly desecrated. Like almost all the action sequences in the movie, it’s incompetently staged and frequently incoherent. Fuqua’s primary technique is to assemble a rapid series of interchangeable cuts of guys screaming and shooting pistols or people’s heads exploding in digitally inserted sprays of blood. He clearly believes the goodness of a movie is directly proportional to the number of times someone is shot in the head in close-up.
The disaster footage is so gory and somber it’s tough to enjoy even on a dumb, visceral level, and that’s before Fuqua starts trucking in some queasy September 11 exploitation. We see a quick cut of staff in an office building watching through a high-rise window as a plane roars toward them just before veering away. The plane then dips down and clips the top of the Washington Monument, which proceeds to crumble and collapse inward in an almost perfect recreation of one of the Twin Towers. That’s a heavy tone to set for a movie that’s about to feature Gerard Butler shooting his way into the White House and singlehandedly killing thirty trained militants while firing off leaden wisecracks.
The absurdities mount with startling rapidity. The coup was orchestrated thanks to an ex-Secret Service agent (Dylan McDermott) who is condemning his own country to nuclear disaster because of, well, you know, Wall Street and stuff. The North Koreans-- who are clearly identified as not working within the North Korean government, as we wouldn’t want to offend their fine and noble leadership-- plan to steal the three-tiered code from the President that will allow them to detonate all the nuclear missiles in America in their silos, which I’m sure we installed for a very good reason. The President quickly gives away the first two codes to save the life of an old man and the Secretary of Defense, his logic being: “I just won’t give you the third code no matter what you do.” Killer plan, Mister President. Gerard Butler fights an automated machine gun and missile launcher with a rocket-propelled grenade. American flags are tattered, more American flags are raised.
The only potential upside of Olympus Has Fallen is that audiences will have another chance to see the concept executed more competently this summer when White House Down is released. The near-identical plot sees cop Channing Tatum taking his daughter on a tour of the White House the day terrorists seize it and capture President Jamie Foxx. It might not be much better, but it couldn’t be much worse.
Follow Bryan Miller on Twitter@bmillercomedy.