"Bring Out the Full Package"
Olympus Has Fallen opens with portentous military drumbeat and an American flag flapping in the breeze. Back in the ‘90s, this was shorthand for, “Here comes a Michael Bay movie.” Indeed, this is the kind of movie Bay and/or his former producer Jerry Bruckheimer might have shepherded, those R-rater, star-studded action thrillers—like The Rock, Con Air or Crimson Tide—about bad guys and the One Man who’s capable of stopping them.
This movie’s One Man is Mike Banning, played by Gerard Butler rather than Nicolas Cage or Bruce Willis, who have both begun to age out of this formula. In Olympus Has Fallen, the formula includes elements of non-Bay movies like Die Hard and Red Dawn, as well, such that US patriotic fantasies are directed against very visibly other Others. Olympus Has Fallen makes the invading bad guys North Koreans, in keeping with the race-switched Red Dawn remake from 2012 and the more general notion that these Others are today’s go-to Others.
But before Banning can fight off North Koreans, however, he must, as dictated by the hero’s playbook, suffer a personal and professional tragedy. This happens while Banning serves as head of the Secret Service detail guarding President Benjamin Asher (Aaron Eckhart), First Lady Margaret Asher (Ashley Judd), and their son Connor (Finley Jacobsen). A terrible accident befalls the First Family, and Banning, despite his Special Forces training (and clumsily telegraphed great relationships with all three White House occupants), is powerless to prevent it. Cut to six months later: a guilt-ridden Banning works a Secret Service desk and grows distant from his wife Leah (Radha Mitchell). The screenplay makes a major omission by denying him the standard drinking problem.
This all serves only to position Banning near but outside the White House when it’s attacked, so he can fight his way in and become the nation’s last great hope. The initial attack is bloodier and bigger than a lot of recent action movies, locating Olympus Has Fallen as part of the recent late ‘80s/early ‘90s action tropes revival, tropes that emphasize adult-friendly violence and profanity. Unfortunately, director Antoine Fuqua services these tropes with an eye on volume, rather than wit, which means mowing down as many anonymous agents and civilians as possible, with maximized CGI splatter (not quite reaching the levels of latter-day Stallone, but messier than peak Bruckheimer). The movie seems to enjoy working itself up against the fictionalized evil of North Korea, fetishizing shots of the White House in smoking ruin as well as repeated crane shots that show lots of non-specific carnage strewn across Pennsylvania Avenue or the Mall.
The attention paid to devastation also represents the key distinction between Olympus Has Fallen and the better Die Hard movies: it’s noisy and bombastic, but very little fun. The Die Hard movies also make their villains cartoonishly loathsome, of course, but their evil schemes are often rooted in some kind of recognizable human desire (like greed or revenge), and pitted against a scrambling, wisecracking John McClane (at least until McClane became an indestructible superhero). Butler, whose attempts to flatten his Scottish accent make him sound like an American with something permanently caught between his back teeth, seems a mildly personable killing machine, lacking both the ‘80s vintage hero’s physical vulnerability and his self-aware humor.
So Olympus treats Die Hard‘s absurdity with solemnity, while treating the audience like children. During the busy crosscutting, the movie helpfully subtitles locations, landmarks, and people’s jobs. Silly as it is to have the Vice President labeled like the Washington Monument, the subtitling may be necessary because rather than working from confinement like the first Die Hard, Fuqua lets his movie scatter all over the place, dissipating its narrative drive. It’s as saturated with stars and character actors as a vintage Bruckheimer ensemble, only without giving anyone anything much to do.
Those wasted include Angela Bassett as the director of the Secret Service, Melissa Leo as the flinty Secretary of Defense, and Morgan Freeman as the Speaker of the House, whose relationship to President Asher is left entirely unexplored. Olympus Has Fallen is too thoughtlessly patriotic to engage in real intra-government conflict beyond the nominal protests of the general (Robert Forster) who isn’t sure that Banning can be trusted with his last-man-standing operation. Even this most basic of conflicts gets lost on the movie’s too-big canvas.
This canvas is excessive technically as well as narratively. The special effects that are favored over the actors often look chintzy, particularly in a series of aerial attack scenes that have little bearing on the actual White House takeover. With so much ground to cover, Olympus Has Fallen offers efficient but overfamiliar episodes: for 20 or 30 minutes, it places a child in danger, then it showcases a traitorous American’s anger and subterfuge, and then it turns to the old trick where the hero and villain taunt each other over an intercom.
Familiarity doesn’t have to breed contempt. Action formulas can be executed with great energy and style. But this movie treats its formula as a platform for too-serious drama. Olympus Has Fallen might look, sometimes, like as a good old-fashioned action movie. But it’s just old.