Sunday, March 24, 2013

"Olympus Has Fallen" (2013)

Starring Gerard Butler, Rick Yune and Aaron Eckhart
Written by Creighton Rothenberger and Katrin Benedict
Directed by Antoine Fuqua
Rated R - Violence, strong language
Running Time: 120 Minutes

One snowy evening, a Secret Service convoy carrying the President of the United States, Benjamin Asher (Aaron Eckhart), his wife Margaret (Ashley Judd), son Connor (Finley Jacobsen) and led by Secret Service Agent Mike Banning (Gerard Butler) crashes on a bridge over a river near Camp David. Banning pulls the president out of the car before it slips off the edge of the bridge, but does so at the expense of rescuing Margaret.

Eighteen months later, Banning now works for the Treasury Department in a dull desk job and wracked with guilt over his failure. His wife Leah (Radha Mitchell) is frustrated with how distant he's become and begs him to go on vacation with her to help fix their marriage. He promises instead to take her out on a date, then heads to work.

Meanwhile, a delegation from South Korea is visiting the White House, including their Prime Minister, and a private security detail that includes another former Secret Service agent and friend of Banning's, Dave Forbes (Dylan McDermott). At the same time, an attack begins on the United States. A plane painted with false Air Force markings makes its way into DC airspace and begins laying waste to the city. The Air Force manages to shoot it down, but it is only the beginning of a well-planned assault on the White House. Banning, seeing the attack from his office, rushes over to help but becomes trapped inside when the terrorists manage the impossible: seizing the White House, with the President, Secretary of Defense (Melissa Leo) and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs still inside.

At the Pentagon, the head of the Secret Service, Lynne Jacobs (Angela Bassett) and Speaker Alan Trumbull (Morgan Freeman) negotiate with the leader of the terrorists, Kang (Rick Yune) whose men had posed as the South Korean PM's security detail. They're locked in a secure bunker underground, with access to some of America's most high-tech and deadly weaponry.

With most of the Secret Service dead or trapped outside, Banning is the only one inside still capable of taking on the terrorists and rescuing the president and the other hostages. But he's alone, outmanned and outgunned. And when the terrorists' ultimate plot is revealed, Banning might ultimately be the only one who can save the entire United States.

The 1990s saw the emergence of the "Die Hard on/in a _____" subgenre, which produced some great action flicks and some really awful ones. The better ones seem to know just how implausible they are and then just steamroll ahead anyway with a mixture of fun scripting and good direction to make you forget that the President of the United States is extremely unlikely to be tossing Russian terrorists off his plane.

Meanwhile, the actual "Die Hard" franchise became a poor shadow of its former self. Eventually even the knockoffs kind of fell away, too. But here comes "Olympus Has Fallen," which even more shamelessly rips off "Die Hard," borrowing a number of story beats from that first, classic film. On the one hand, it's a couple steps up from "A Good Day to Die Hard," but that doesn't say much.

The main issue with "Olympus Has Fallen" is really just how cheap the whole thing seems. The film is loaded with rough computer generated special effects. On the plus side, they're consistent. They're not terrible, but they're flat and lack detail.  The collapse of the Washington Monument, so prominently displayed in the film's advertising campaign, looks unfinished. Occasionally, poor rotoscoping is noticeable around characters' heads when they sit or stand in front of large computer monitor displays, leading to those awkward moments when hair pops in an out of existence.

Beyond the special effects, the movie spends nearly all of its time in the same few rooms and corridors. You'll see the same security room, lobby, corridor and the Lincoln Bedroom over and over. Banning also retreats more than once to the Oval Office. This leads me into one of my other issues: it seems like this film wasn't written by Americans, or at least with anyone with more than a passing knowledge of the White House or what could be picked up on a Wikipedia search. Characters say "holiday" instead of "vacation," and there were even a couple of quick grammatical errors on TV news feed scrawls that pop up every so often. There are even some odd continuity errors - in one scene, Banning picks up a machine gun in the security office. In the next scene, he goes into the Oval Office and is once again armed only with his handgun, with no clue as to what happened to the machine gun he picked up in the previous scene. The movie is positively loaded with weird things like this.

After the initial assault, things calm down a bit. Banning takes on the terrorists one at a time and here's where the other major failings of "Olympus Has Fallen" come into play. Firstly, as I mentioned, it borrows a number of ideas from "Die Hard" beyond the basic premise of one man trapped alone in a building against terrorists. Remember the scene where LA SWAT tries to storm Nakatomi and McClane sets off the chair bomb? In this movie, it's helicopters full of Navy SEALs, and instead of a chair bomb, Banning has a rocket launcher.  How about when McClane, pulling glass from his feet, weeps over the radio to Al to apologize to his wife if he doesn't make it? Here, Banning makes a satellite phone call to Leah, who works as a nurse at a nearby hospital... also while pulling glass from his wounds. Or how about all those fun exchanges between McClane and Hans? Yep, you guessed it, Kang and Banning taunt each other over the radio throughout the White House.

Oh, and the film also borrows heavily from "Air Force One." All those scenes with Glenn Close? They're put on here by Morgan Freeman and Angela Bassett.

Secondly, the entire script hinges on one other big issue: the terrorists' plan would have failed completely if not for the fact that President Asher insists, against the wishes of the Secret Service, that the entire South Korean delegation, including the security detail, accompany him into the underground bunker. If Asher had listened to his men and followed the protocol, which they shout loudly, then this movie would have been over in half an hour.

So with all these issues, then it's strange to watch "Olympus Has Fallen" because it seems to so casually mix things it does right with things it does wrong. The action sequences are well-constructed and entertaining. Butler gets some spectacularly savage kills, which all feel great in this "America, fuck yeah!" kind of action film. The violence in the film is squarely R-rated, with lots of spattering blood, shots to the head, cracking bones and more.  The assault on the White House is, aside from the aforementioned lacking CGI, pretty dang cool. And long. Director Antoine Fuqua is a talented fellow, and there are some haunting moments where he lets the gravity of the premise sink in - terrorists have killed hundreds in our nation's capital and taken over the seat of leadership of our nation.

The cast is uniformly excellent, even when saddled with some crap dialogue. Angela Bassett and Morgan Freeman are, as always, a pleasure to have around. Gerard Butler is clearly having a good time, and it is good to see him back to playing a badass action hero instead of his turns in various terrible romantic comedies. Rick Yune does his best gravely-voiced terrorist impersonation, but it's unfortunate that he doesn't get to do much of anything else but posture on screens for much of the film's runnign time.  Aaron Eckhart is also quite good in his role as the president.

It's actually a shame that such a good cast is almost wasted in such a cheap film. "Olympus Has Fallen" feels like a lot of talented people straining to do more with limited resources, and not quite coming up with it. According to Wikipedia, the film was budgeted at $70 million, but I find myself wondering where a lot of that money went. How much does Morgan Freeman cost these days?