BLOGS

Olympus Has Fallen: And It Can’t Get Up!

by Ethan Alter March 22, 2013 6:02 am
<i>Olympus Has Fallen</i>: And It Can’t Get Up!

It's been awhile since we've had a good old-fashioned blockbuster premise-off -- a duel between two high-concept, high-intensity action movies with the exact same premise. Who can forget the great Deep Impact vs. Armageddon asteroid-destroying-Earth battle of '98? (Winner: Armageddon by a country mile.) Or how about the epic Dante's Peak vs. Volcano exploding-volcano confrontation of '97? (Winner: Neither.) Well, this year we're getting a pair of flicks where the White House becomes the setting for a Die Hard-like game of cat-and-mouse between a terrorist organization that's seized control of the place and the lone Secret Service agent who takes it upon himself to stop them. The week before America celebrates its 237th birthday, moviegoers can watch this disturbing scenario play out in the Roland Emmerich-directed, Channing Tatum-starring White House Down, scheduled to hit theaters on June 28. But why wait 'til then when you can watch the Antoine Fuqua-directed, Gerard Butler starring Olympus Has Fallen this weekend? Well, here's one good reason -- Olympus is awful

Granted, history has shown that you can't exactly count on a late-career Roland Emmerich movie being worth a damn either, but if nothing else, pictures like 2012, 10,000 B.C. and The Day After Tomorrow do have a certain sense of humor about themselves. The actors know it's junk, the audience knows it's junk and Emmerich knows it's junk, so he's not above elbowing you in the ribs to put a smile on your face. Fuqua comes equipped with his own set of skills, but comedy isn't among them. This is the guy, after all, who took one of the most of lively figures of literary legend -- King Arthur -- and turned him into a sour, grim-faced bore. Handed a script by first-time scribes Creighton Rothenberger and Katrin Benedikt that can generously be described as patently absurd (and less generously, as barely literate), Fuqua proceeds to treat it like it's freakin' Hemingway or something. To be fair, it's not like the scenario of a kidnapped President and a White House under siege exactly lends itself to shits-and-giggles. Even so, with its barely-concealed racism and wearying bloodshed -- including what feels like a million bullet-to-the-head executions -- it's a chore to sit through. Take the first big set-piece, which finds a heavily armed plane strafing the streets of Washington D.C. in a hail of bullets that explode the bodies of countless extras. Then, when the aircraft is finally shot down, it slashes through the Washington Monument on its way to a crash-landing on the Mall, causing that structure to collapse in on itself in a shot that's clearly meant to evoke the Twin Towers crumbling. That's entertainment?

Actually, in a way it is -- just not how the filmmakers intend. See, while Emmerich got a big studio (Sony) to back his White House disaster picture, Olympus is a production of the budget-conscious Millennium Films and the various corners that were cut to make this film possible are all too evident onscreen. The compositing in that opening attack, for example, is so terrible that this winged harbinger of death frequently looks like a tiny model airplane that was suspended in front of a green screen. And since shooting in D.C. proper is a pricey proposition, Shreveport served as the stand-in for the nation's capital. If you thought the New York-for-D.C. doubling on The Americans was bad, just wait 'til you see Butler -- who, I guess I should say, plays Secret Service agent John McClane Mike Banning, the dude that rescues President Benjamin Asher (Aaron Eckhart) from some very unpleasant North Korean operatives, led by sadistic Kang (Rick Yune), a walking Asian stereotype straight-out of the old "Yellow Peril" days -- run up to a White House that looks closer to one of the plantation manor's from Django Unchained. Countless other errors abound, from the way day keeps changing to night and back again (sometimes within the same scene) to the lower-third text of a news broadcast that reports of a terrorist attack going down at the -- and I swear I'm not making this up -- "Whitehouse." (Were this spelling error to occur once, I'd chalk it up to simple error. That it appears multiple times is willful neglect.) So even if the movie itself isn't any fun, spotting all of its blatant mistakes and Ed Wood-ian budgetary shortfalls definitely is.

All that said, Fuqua does do one thing right with this Die Hard knock-off and it's a thing that the Die Hard movies themselves have gotten away from. Once Banning gets inside the Whitehouse White House, the movie keeps him cooped up inside that setting rather than sending him running all over an entire city as in Die Hards 3 thru 5. That feeling of confinement was one of the chief appeals of the original Die Hard and lends Olympus what little juice it has. Banning's working-class, trash-talking ethos is also a clear nod in the direction of McClane, as is his relentless taunting of his nemesis. But Olympus forgets the other crucial aspect of McClane's character (in the first movie, anyway): his ordinariness. Instead, Banning is a highly-trained, highly-skilled ex-Army Ranger, who dispatches this North Korean shadow army with the same ease that Liam Neeson displays while decimating the Albanian gangster population in the two Taken movies. (It doesn't help that Neeson goes about his bloody business with more gravitas in his left pinkie than Butler has in his well-sculpted body.) Because he doesn't doubt his odds at survival, we don't either and the movie simply becomes a tedious waiting game until he finally comes face-to-face with Kang. Even though Olympus Has Fallen beat him to the punch, Emmerich shouldn't feel too concerned about the prospects of White House Down. His movie might not be much better, but it sure as hell can't be any worse.

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