Movie Review: Olympus Has Fallen (2013)

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The Gods Would be Proud

A Film Review of Olympus Has Fallen

By: Lawrence Napoli

 

The first thing I thought about when the end credits began to roll on Olympus Has Fallen is whether Hollywood just supplied North Korea with its unofficial, “official” national film.  As crazy as Kim Jong II was, I can’t imagine his narcissistic mind ever evolving a plot as extraordinary as Olympus despite his well documented obsession with Hollywood films.  Thanks to North Korea’s most recent threats to the US, we can clearly see that the apple hasn’t fallen too far from the tree in Kim Jong Un.  Seriously, one must question another’s sanity when said person invites Dennis Rodman over for anything that doesn’t involve Fifty Shades of Depravity.  As foolish as North Korea has been depicted in the media, they remain a real threat to global stability and Hollywood is certainly not taking them lightly. 

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There's only one thing you do to bad guys doing bad things.

Most recently North Korea was the designated bad guy in the Red Dawn remake as well as occasional appearances as the boogeyman in the likes of Die Another Day (2002) and Stealth (2005).  What Olympus represents beyond a “Yay America – it’s US vs. them” sentiment, is a quintessential North Korean wet dream involving the desecration and destruction of Western civilization.  As entertaining and thought provoking as this film is, I wonder if the intrigue is worth taunting the enemy or worse, giving them the inspiration for a real-world, armed incursion.  By producing such outlandish scenarios, perhaps Hollywood is contributing to society by having whatever American think-tank that’s in charge of national security consider such what-if’s to prevent them from ever becoming viable.  It’s a dangerous world out there where espionage, cyber warfare and terrorism are the accepted forms of contemporary war because large scale military operations can be trumped by nukes.  And then we all die.  Olympus Has Fallen is a film that gives the audience a brief glimpse to all of the above in the form of a very succinct action film that is quick, smart, blunt and graphic. 

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Why are all the best American heroes depicted in film and TV from England, Scotland or Ireland? 

Shall we ask the cast of AMC's The Walking Dead?

Olympus Has Fallen is a brand new Hollywood IP not adapted from anything.  This film looks, sounds and feels like a breath of familiarly fresh air.  What makes this story even more unique is the fact that it was written by the team of Creighton Rothenberger and Katrin Benedikt; neither of whom have a single credit to their name in La La Land other than Rothenberger’s reception of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences Nicholl Fellowship in Screenwriting for the Korean War film, The Chosin back in 2002.  Obviously, the subject material hasn’t deviated too much in Olympus: it’s still war and Korea’s involvement is essential.  Certainly, global forces are at odds amidst this film’s back drop, but what makes the story work is the audience’s identification with secret service agent Mike Banning, the protagonist.  This movie has plenty of action and exposition to get to, so character development must be dealt with efficiently.  Thankfully, Olympus is equal to the task in that Banning is established as a charismatic professional with a personal stake in the President’s family with a tragedy to redeem himself for.  This all happens in the first 10 minutes.  Action films can sometimes get too caught up with establishing the setting and mood of the film without introducing their main characters outside of the inevitable turmoil.  In this regard, Olympus takes a noticeable cue from Die Hard (1988).  We know what Banning is all about, we like him and then the action takes over.

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The whole world is blowing up around me!

Olympus Has Fallen features a treasure trove of action: Airplanes pelting each other with bullets and missiles?  Check.  Rampant destruction of buildings?  Check.  Michael Bay explosions?  Check.  Small arms gunplay?  Check.  Large arms gunplay?  Discount double check.  The one aspect of the action as a whole that will easily be overlooked is the fact that despite the plot’s focus on nukes and fleets and planes and various other weapons of mass destruction, it’s the CQC (Close Quarters Combat) incorporating pistols, knives and fists that really saves the day.  Stunt coordinators Lin Oeding, Ketih Woulard and fight choreographer J.J. Perry really outdid themselves in making the violence as intense as possible despite the interior confines of the White House and its various secret passages.  Not that Gerard Butler needs any help looking more BA than he already does, but the whole stunt team helped the man kick some serious ass and it really shines through onscreen. 

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The body count begins to rise here.

Antoine Fuqua has proven that he knows a thing or two about how to shoot an action flick, having directed films like Training Day (2001), Tears of the Sun (2003) and Shooter (2007).  Everything from the effects, to pyro, to the action, to the set design and performance comes together quite nicely and that reflects the leadership of a seasoned veteran.  One interesting directing choice that I would like to make note of was how Fuqua made dedicated efforts to highlight women as part of the evil invading Korean team that assaults the White House.  I simply cannot recall women having been so active participants in these kinds of action films outside of being targets or victims.  These ladies kill plenty of civilians and security during their assault and in turn are equally disposed of by the hero, Mike Banning.  I like maintaining the professionalism of that character by not having him pause for an instant to consider killing an armed assailant just because she’s a woman.  However, I would have liked to see women being featured on the good guy side of the US military as actively as the villains.  No one will be referencing Olympus Has Fallen for its progressive depiction of women any time soon, but in a film where adrenaline and testosterone are swelling like Dick Cheney’s ego, it’s nice to not see women as ONLY sexual objects.

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The roof, the roof, the roof is on ... oh whatever.  Bad joke.

The cast of Olympus Has Fallen is certainly more accomplished than that of a standard action film.  Although Angela Bassett, Morgan Freeman, Melissa Leo, Radha Mitchell, Ashley Judd, Dylan McDermott and Aaron Eckhart all produce fine performances, the combined acumen of these actors is somewhat lost in the firestorm that is the constant action throughout this film.  Just about every supporting member of the cast has one dialogue moment with leading man Gerard Butler, but it simply is not enough for anyone else to truly shine.  Action films are about the hero against the big bad and in this case, Rick Yune seems to have fully embraced being the consummate villainous character actor in his role as the nefarious Kang.  Yune, never having been an overly emotive actor, plays to his stoic strengths in Olympus.  The fact that he is in fine physical condition makes him a comparable match for Butler and the controlled manner in which Yune portrays spite and hate has certainly been done before, but playing the antagonist as a raving lunatic would have simply been the wrong choice all together.

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I'm a sick puppy.

This is Gerard Butler’s film and not just because he’s the lead, but also because his production company co-financed this project and afforded him a nice, shiny producing credit.  Whatever “producing” responsibilities he may or may not have actually had does not interfere with the man’s ability to throw some beat-downs, pop some caps and look pretty damn cool doing it.  Given the appropriate frame and physicality, anyone can do this job, but Butler’s eclectic filmography as well as his performance in Olympus show that real acting can exist even in meathead roles.  Yes, yes, he plays a secret service agent and I’m sure there are higher degrees of aptitude required for those kinds of positions, but his role still boils down to him killing every one of the bad guys and this does not permit his character to elevate to anything beyond Rambo.  Still, in the moments he is afforded to dialogue with the president’s son Connor (played by Finley Jacobsen) allow him to convey humanity to the audience which infuses his character with sympathy.  Gerard Butler is every bit the action star as every icon that came before him and although he does not reinvent the wheel with his efforts in Olympus, they are not in vain and he gets the job done.

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So, remind me again.  Why are we even here?

Olympus Has Fallen will probably be one of the best, straight up, action films of this year.  All of tThe Avengers: Phase 2 films will have the benefits of CG wizardry to make the likes of Hemsworth and Downey Jr. fly around to do their thing.  The next Fast and Furious film will have animated car stunts and vehicle gimmicks.  Star Trek: Into Darkness will be all green screen and wire work.  What this film has over all of those other hybrid action films is combat: hand-to-hand and gunplay.  Both of which are executed cleanly and impactful with plenty of blood and headshots to go around.  It’s true that there are several action film conventions at work here, but with so many years removed from the original Die Hard,; it’s nice to see a film make an honest effort to really go for capturing that kind of lightning in a bottle again.  Hopefully, Zeus won’t be mad.

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