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Movie Curiosities: Olympus Has Fallen

Oh, Gerard Butler. What happened to you, man?

When Butler hit the big time seven years ago in 300, he looked like a genuine badass. One of those rare few action stars with some degree of honest acting talent. And then things went south. Hard. Suddenly and immediately.

Though Butler did get a couple of decent gigs here and there, his post-300 career has been a lot less RocknRolla and a lot more P.S. I Love You. First came Nim’s Island, which spent a few years as an industry punchline before getting summarily tossed into obscurity. Then he starred in a romantic comedy with Katherine Heigl, which has since been proven a form of career suicide. Even when he tried going back to action, we got the trainwreck known as Gamer.

Butler has shown signs of recovery over the past couple of years, though his road back into Hollywood’s good graces has been rocky. He did have a prominent voice role in How to Train Your Dragon, though landing a voice role in a DreamWorks animated film is hardly much of an accomplishment. Butler also starred in Machine Gun Preacher and Ralph Fiennes’ adaptation of Coriolanus, apparently trying to gain some awards cred, though both films came and went without much of anyone noticing. Then came Playing for Keeps and Movie 43, both of which seemed to suggest that the guy had just stopped trying.

In spite of all this, I keep thinking back to Leonidas. I know that Butler has become something of a punching bag for reasons that are not completely undeserved, but I can’t help rooting for him anyway. In fact, I feel much the same way about 300 director Zack Snyder.

Anyway, Butler has apparently decided to take one last try at revitalizing his career. Even better, the guy’s gone back to his roots and made a straight-up, testosterone-loaded, lowest common denominator action film as a starring vehicle. Butler’s credited as an actor and as a producer on this film, working alongside a noted action director named Antoine Fuqua.

The film in question is Olympus Has Fallen. It is, as a friend of mine recently put it, “the best Die Hard film released this year.”

Butler plays Mike Banning, an agent with the Secret Service. We first meet him at Camp David, where he’s boxing with President Benjamin Asher (Aaron Eckhart), giving platonic fashion advice to the First Lady (Margaret Asher, played by Ashley Judd), and playing around with the president’s son (Connor Asher, played by Finley Jacobsen). I have no idea if VIPs and their families ever actually get so personally attached to their bodyguards, but we’ll roll with it.

We open at Christmastime, which means that everything’s all festive and bright. Everyone’s having a good time, they’re all trading presents, so of course something bad is about to happen. And it does.

During a particularly bad snowstorm, the presidential motorcade is forced off a bridge by… something. I have absolutely no idea what it was, and no attempt at explanation is ever made. The important thing is that the president and his wife caught the full force of the accident. Mike and his colleagues were able to save the president, but First Lady Margaret wasn’t so lucky.

At this point, you might think that killing Ashley Judd’s character off in the prologue was a dumb waste of a perfectly good actress. However, Margaret plays a very strong offscreen presence through the whole film, and the circumstances of her death are a key motivation for several characters going forward. She needed to be cast with someone who had a great deal of screen presence, otherwise the character wouldn’t stick and the whole film would’ve been damaged. It’s one of those thankless roles in which an actor has to win the audience over with only a few scenes, but Judd sells it like a champ.

Moving on, we cut to 18 months later. For his failure to save the president’s wife, Mike has been taken off the Secret Service and stuck with a boring desk job at the U.S. Treasury. Of course, though he’s gone, Mike isn’t forgotten. He still has plenty of friends in the Service, and little Connor still misses his favorite bodyguard.

Elsewhere in the White House, the prime minister of South Korea is coming over to discuss their ongoing rivalry with North Korea. And then, from out of nowhere, all hell breaks loose in Washington D.C. Through airstrikes, guerilla soldiers, roadblocks, heavy artillery, and the good old-fashioned element of surprise, every resident and tourist within shouting distance of the Washington Monument gets torn at least three new assholes apiece.

At the first sign of danger, President Asher, the vice president, the Korean prime minister, and a few other VIPs (excluding Connor, whose whereabouts are completely unknown) are all of course taken to a heavily fortified underground command center/bunker. This turns out to be a big mistake. The Korean security detail turns on everyone else, assassinates the prime minister, and holds the American government officials hostage.

Within 13 minutes, the White House has been taken.

And where’s Mike? Well, he went straight for the White House at the first sign of trouble, and he was able to sneak his way in through all the chaos. He then proceeds to mess with everyone’s plans in a big way.

So who else do we have in the cast? Well, there’s Morgan Freeman as Allan Trumbull, the Speaker of the House. Yes, you read that right: Morgan Freeman is in a movie about the White House and he isn’t playing the president. However, since Asher and his V.P. are presently unable to discharge their duties, that makes Trumbull the de facto acting commander-in-chief. So, yeah, it’s Morgan Freeman playing the president. That goes every bit as well as you’d expect.

Melissa Leo also appears as the Secretary of Defense, one of the hostages in the bunker. In recent years, I’ve noticed a pattern with Melissa Leo’s work: I’ll watch a movie, I’ll find out that Leo is in that movie, I’ll think back as hard as I can, and I’ll find myself asking “That was her?!” That happens every single time and it never gets old. Anyway, Leo doesn’t get a whole lot of screen time, but she gives a tremendous amount of strength and dignity to what might easily have been a throwaway character.

Speaking of throwaway characters, let’s talk about Radha Mitchell. She plays Leah Banning, a trauma nurse who’s also Mike’s wife. The film tried so hard to make her character relevant, but it just doesn’t work. Yes, she does get an early scene to help sell the illusion of Mike as a guy with a heart, but we’ve already come to like the guy from earlier scenes anyway. Plus, all pretension of Mike as an ordinary guy goes out the window when we learn about his extensive military background. Yes, Leah provides some motivation for our hero to come out alive, but he’s got so many other and better reasons to succeed that some non-entity of a wife completely fails to register.

Additionally, the film tries to make use of Leah as a medical professional, one of many who are called upon to treat those who were wounded in the attack. That’s a very novel and ballsy angle to explore, particularly in such a testosterone-driven and uber-patriotic film as this one. However, these scenes are so brief and inconsequential that the approach comes off as half-baked. Finally, we’re treated to a scene in which Mike calls his wife for a possible farewell just before heading to the climax. Alas, these characters and their actors are so devoid of chemistry that the scene falls completely flat.

I get what the filmmakers were going for with Leah, and it’s such a damn shame they failed at it. It’s especially bad, because the film’s breakneck pace only starts to lag when she shows up on the screen. But I’ll get to that later.

Other players in the supporting cast include Robert Forster, who plays a one-dimensional general with more authority and gravitas than the role deserved. Dylan McDermott appears as a character who’s so obviously a traitor that I won’t even pretend it’s a spoiler. Angela Bassett plays the head of the Secret Service, a character who somehow manages to be completely unmemorable despite her massive amount of screen time and dialogue.

Strangely enough, the strongest member of this supporting cast turns out to be the kid. I don’t know where Finley Jacobsen came from, but the casting director really hit pay dirt with him. Jacobsen does a great job of playing a kid who’s smart and proactive, yet vulnerable and emotionally troubled, all without coming off as annoying. Even better, Connor was a very well-written character, smart and strong enough to play a relevant part in the plot and earn audience sympathy, but without stretching disbelief too much. Plus, his banter with Mike was actually quite solid. Very good work.

Before moving on, I suppose I should talk about Aaron Eckhart’s role in all of this. Put simply, it’s Aaron Eckhart playing the president. As with Morgan Freeman, there really isn’t much more to say.

At this point, we may as well address the villain of the piece. That would be Kang Yeonsak (Rick Yune), a rogue North Korean terrorist who was smuggled to South Korea as a child and went on to be head of security for the South Korean prime minister. Moreover, we later learn that Kang was responsible for several high-profile acts of destruction over the years, though no western intelligence agency could ever learn a thing about him. So the guy has thousands of kills under his belt, yet the CIA, NSA, Interpol, MI6, and all the other global intelligence agencies put together were either incapable of finding anything about him, or couldn’t be bothered to care. Sorry, but I call bullshit.

Even better, Kang is calling for the U.S. to withdraw its military troops along the Korean DMZ. The American generals constantly express fear of this notion, saying that South Korea would instantly be wiped off the map if North Korea tried to invade and Uncle Sam wasn’t there to stop them. Yeah, no. I may only be a typical American, ignorant of what’s happening abroad, but even I know that South Korea has been preparing for attack from the north for quite some time. I’m quite sure that South Korea has an army of its own, and I’m damned sure that South Korea could whup the North’s ass at cyberwarfare, if nothing else. Moreover, North Korea has grown so notoriously unpopular in the international community that even if the United States was unable to lend assistance, some other country likely would.

So yes, war would break out and South Korea would suffer heavy losses. But to suggest that they would just roll over and get invaded without a fight is just ludicrous.

Getting back to the movie, we also have Cerberus to worry about. What’s Cerberus, you ask? It’s a ticking clock that ticks as quickly or as slowly as the filmmakers please at any given moment. Also, it provides a bit of false drama for the end of the climax. That’s really all you ever need to know.

All of these plot holes and contrivances are bad, but they don’t even skim the surface. My personal favorite non-spoilery plot hole concerns Mike Banning’s access to White House security. Yes, despite the fact that he’s been out of the Secret Service for 18 months, his access to security still works like a charm. Apparently, we’re led to believe that the White House — easily one of the most heavily-secured locations in the world, as the film reminds us — can’t be bothered to update any of its security codes or personnel files after a year and a half. Yeah, right.

In case it isn’t obvious, the screenplay is stupid as hell. There are plot holes, there are gaps in logic, there are huge suspensions of disbelief, dumb things are done for dumb reasons, characters who are superfluous and/or one-dimensional, I could go on and on. Then again, that sort of goes with the premise of a rogue terrorist group destroying the White House. With a premise like that, there’s really nothing to look forward to except the action.

So does the action deliver? Oh, holy fuck yes.

Last year, when the Red Dawn remake came out, I remember hearing stories from people who watched the original movie when they were kids. They were terrified because at the time, they felt like the events of the film could really have unfolded. They thought that the USSR could have invaded the next day, and it would have looked exactly like the film. That’s how I felt watching this movie. My head keeps reminding me that it’s impossible (especially now that I’ve left the theater) but my gut kept telling me “this is how it would happen” as I was sitting there watching the movie.

The first act closes with bloodshed and mayhem on a truly epic scale. It was absolutely riveting to watch the Secret Service, the National Guard, and the local police department all get so thoroughly pwned in such a ruthlessly strategic manner. Moreover, it was staggering how many cannon fodder characters get killed and how much property gets utterly destroyed in such a wide variety of ways for such a prolonged length of time.

And here’s the best part: From that point onward, the film just keeps going. The movie takes its sweet time getting through the first act, but the other 90 minutes just keep relentlessly building and building. Even when Mike is supposed to be sitting tight and resting, he still takes time for hand-to-hand combat with some passing redshirt. Even when the scene is of people sitting around a table and talking, it’s all about advancing the clock and raising the stakes. Though the movie might take a couple of annoying pauses when Leah’s around, those are just minor exceptions that prove the rule.

But getting back around to my original point, what about Gerard Butler? Well, to put it simply, he’s one of the main reasons why this film evokes comparisons to Die Hard. I know that comparisons to John McClane should not be made lightly, but that’s the easiest one to make. In this film, Gerard Butler has the same blunt attitude and dry wit that made Bruce Willis so entertaining to watch back in his prime. This character is a ’90s wisecracking action hero with ’10s style. When Mike tells the villain to go fuck himself, it’s done with the same kind of humor and charm that made “yippee-ki-yay, motherfucker” one of the most recognizable catchphrases in cinema history.

Put simply, Butler’s performance and his character are emblematic of the movie as a whole. He’s a walking action movie stereotype, but the film is smart enough not to try and prove otherwise. Butler strikes a masterful balance with this character archetype, cranking it up to 11 without going into parody territory. He makes the trope his own, and he’s clearly having a great time in the process.

Olympus Has Fallen is the kind of film you get when good directors happen to bad screenplays. In anyone else’s hands, this might easily have been a trainwreck of massive proportions. Luckily, Butler finally takes this opportunity to become the action star we all knew he could be, and his ’90s-style quips are beautifully delivered. The rest of the cast is very good as well, playing their roles just seriously enough to keep the stakes epic and credible, but not seriously enough to lose sight of the fact that this is a brain-dead action spectacular.

The best thing I can say about this movie is that it knows exactly what it is. Antoine Fuqua knew enough not to pretend that this was anything other than an “America, Fuck Yeah!” film for the lowest common denominator, so he set out to make the best damn uber-patriotic action film he possibly could. And brother, he succeeded. Though I wouldn’t blame anyone who condemns the film for its predictable and brain-dead screenplay, I can honestly say that I had an amazing time for my two hours.

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