"Olympus Has Fallen," So Will Your IQ

If the opening notes of Lee Greenwood’s “God Bless The USA” are enough to put a tear in your eye and a song in your heart, you’re probably going to love “Olympus Has Fallen.” The latter carries cinematic corniness to new heights, seemingly intent on sniffing out the groans that Greenwood’s tune has elicited for decades. Yet, comparing the two pieces is an insult to Greenwood, who obviously put a lot of thought and emotion into his song, no matter its perceived schmaltziness. “God Bless The USA” is a genuine statement of patriotism, while “Olympus” uses patriotism as a prop. Neither is much of an artistic statement, at least to the most cynical of eyes and ears, but “Olympus” takes delight in its own unoriginality, dancing on the grave of every loud, dumb, preposterous action film of the past twenty years. Without earning any of it.

Be warned. None of the characters in “Olympus Has Fallen” speak English. They speak in clichés. “The United States Of America doesn’t negotiate with terrorists!” “I’m the best hope you’ve got.” “We’ve just opened up the gates of hell!” Among a cast of Oscar nominees, Oscar winners, and box office heavyweights, all but one actor succumbs to the uber-banality of the dialogue. Morgan Freeman (as the Speaker of the House) appears to be sleepwalking through his role while Melissa Leo is relegated to embarrassing physical comedy amidst moments of what should be real horror.

But what’s it about? It’d be easy to prattle on for paragraphs concerning the set-up, but at its core it’s about the White House being taken over by terrorist. No, that’s not a typo. At one point in the film, we see a TV news ticker that reads “TERRORIST ATTACK WHITE HOUSE.” It’s a grammatical lapse that goes a long way in summing up the dearth of thought put into the project. Gerard Butler stars as Mike Banning, a Secret Service agent who lets the First Lady (Ashley Judd) fall to an icy death in the opening moments of the film. It’s obvious that there was nothing Banning could have done to save her, but that doesn’t stop the President (Aaron Eckhart) from shunning him. Before long, Banning is ex-Secret Service.

Soon enough, a North Korean airship, undeterred by a mere two American fighter jets, starts raining bullets on Washington D.C. The President, Vice President, and Secretary of State (Leo) are inexplicably rushed to the same bunker, 120 feet below the White House, as is the visiting South Korean Prime Minister and his head of security. The head of security (played by Rick Yune) is, of course, the lead terrorist and he soon takes over the bunker and begins making demands of the acting President (Freeman). As the exterior of the White House is overtaken by a small militia, Mike Banning takes a leisurely stroll down to 1600 Penn and shoots his way in, taking out hordes of North Koreans in the process. Soon, he’s the country’s proverbial last, best hope.

Is the film at least entertaining on a surface level? Occasionally. The whole narrative ranges from pretty silly to absolutely implausible, but the first-time writers never seem to be having the kind of fun they should be. When Banning becomes a late-game trash talker, it’s a wonder why the first two acts are so dry. As soon as Butler lets the curse words fly, he’s as charismatic as he’s ever been on screen, but his character doesn’t have legs to stand on. We know almost nothing about him – his nurse-girlfriend (played by Radha Mitchell) adds nothing to the story – and his guilt is weightless. He couldn’t have saved the First Lady. Of all the performances, it’s Dylan McDermott who makes the biggest impact. He’s the only cast member who realizes how dumb his lines are, so he digs in and mines gold from a pretty brief appearance.

Director Antoine Fuqua flirted with greatness with 2001’s “Training Day,” but has struck out repeatedly since then. His filmography suggests gun-for-hire, and without a decent script, he seems lost. “Olympus” is no different, and his touch is featherweight. There’s nothing here that couldn’t have been accomplished by the most ordinary of Hollywood filmmakers, and a lack of imagination permeates the entire project. No matter how shoddy the script, the spirit of a film rests on the shoulders of its director. In the hands of Michael Bay or the late Tony Scott, the film would have at least had swagger.

It’s clear that “Olympus Has Fallen” aspires to 90s action flicks like “Air Force One,” “The Rock,” and “Con Air.” But in replicating the tropes of the genre, it loses sight of why those films were successful. They didn’t just rest on the laurels of spectacle and they didn’t overuse CGI. Each one featured memorable characters and their brand of stupidity was a knowing one. Furthermore, the 90s mostly constrained the destruction of American landmarks and American lives to the silver screen. Today, that kind of violence doesn’t carry the same lightness that it once did. Nor should it. But ultimately, “Olympus Has Fallen” isn’t worth the philosophizing. Its problem is that it rolls out of bed and expects applause just for showing up.

-J. Olson

Rating: ★★ out of ★★★★★ (Not So Good)

Release Date: March 22, 2013
Studio: FilmDistrict
Director: Antoine Fuqua
Screenwriter: Creighton Rothenberger, Katrin Benedikt
Starring: Gerard Butler, Aaron Eckhart, Morgan Freeman, Angela Bassett, Dylan McDermott, Ashley Judd, Melissa Leo, Rick Yune
MPAA Rating: R (for strong violence and language throughout)