Release Date: March 22nd, 2013 (US); April 17th, 2013 (UK)
Genre: Action; Thriller
Starring: Gerard Butler, Aaron Eckhart, Morgan Freeman, Dylan McDermott
As far as attacks on the White House go, Olympus Has Fallen trudges its way across the vast lawn with a disappointingly uninspired plod. Bluntly, it’s a film that just doesn’t get much right. Antoine Fuqua’s take on the internal threat to homeland and presidential security saga struggles in areas where it should thrive — notably notions of simplicity — before subsequently becoming entangled in a tonal muddle as it oddly tries to venture into the faux-documentary realm without any conviction. The latter, coupled alongside some shoddy looking CGI attempts, creates a distinctly undesirable televisual shimmer; for $70 million it all feels slightly cheap. Without the macho zest of Gerard Butler, this may very well have been a complete disaster.
The walking embodiment of a tragic evening in the life of both men, Secret Service agent Mike Banning (Gerard Butler) has been removed from Presidential protection duties as the mere sight of him rekindles harrowing memories in the fraught mind of President Asher (Aaron Eckhart). Now chained to a desk job in an office only a few blocks from the White House, the hardy soul is again summoned to defend nation and state as a result of terrorist infiltration. With the Leader of the Free World at the mercy of North Korean guerrilla forces and the very real prospect of US nuclear destruction on the table, Mike sees a chance not to simply become a hero — that’s not enough — but at redemption.
Sounds reasonably straightforward, right? The age-old tale of man (or woman), pride and mind wounded, given the opportunity to reclaim fortitude and settle a previous score. Mike Banning’s journey epitomises this narrative. Heck, he even has the inherently restorative wife in his corner (she’s a nurse); their relationship strained by past decisions and Mike’s resultant self-serving of personal blame when there really isn’t any to be gobbled. Adhering to a well-versed formula is not necessarily a bad thing as long as the adherence is sincere and peppered with an occasional murmuring of intuition. Only, you’re more likely to find a needle in haystack than intuition around these parts.
On one hand, the simplicity is executed sloppily, furnishing a sense of genericism over what could’ve been enjoyable modesty. Visual discrepancies bear the brunt of detriment here — the opening act is hampered by a flow of images that closer resemble the presentation of a video game than a Hollywood film. Later, drones waver around the sky without appearing fully embedded in the landscape, hinting at some sort of blending issue. The graphical inadequacies do sort themselves out when the action slows down and digital enhancement is dumped for more conventional techniques. Yet on the other hand, director Antoine Fuqua unveils vague ramblings of a documentary-style aesthetic. We often watch as labels appear inconspicuously beside characters on screen, each textual nugget informing us of the individual’s name and occupation. It chimes as an attempt to induce a sense of realism or to imply a degree of truth (because not much else is believable), but instead feels lazy. Boasting a portfolio of films including the likes of Training Day, Fuqua is evidently better than this.
Narratively, we don’t get off on the best foot. Driving in blizzard conditions as horrendous as those depicted in the opening act hints at senselessness, particularly given the President of the United States is a passenger. Instantly there arises a lingering anxiety that this will only be the first in a long line of foolish happenings and, true to form, shortly thereafter a conveyor belt of outrageous decision-making is set in motion (at one point the order is given to shoot down aircraft over a busy Washington DC). Nonsense often generates humour, but in a film that preposterously takes itself far too seriously nonsense wholly reduces any semblance of sympathy for the characters on-screen, which is a pretty significant problem given the horrendous predicament that many find themselves in.
A severe tonal struggle exists between the intended air of sobriety and seriousness, and a plot that reeks retro strands: North Korean bad guys, invading and controlling, targeting the President and threatening nuclear catastrophe. It’s a throwback and, to a degree, a fairly camp one. Unsurprisingly, a clear victor fails to emerge between the pair of duelling tones, as the serious ploy comes across as slightly over-egged and the nostalgic effect only exists in principle. As a result the film is devoid of both tension and giggles, unless you get a kick out of lines such as, “They’ve taken the White House!” (a greater helping of which certainly would not have negatively impacted proceedings.)
Performances are almost universally uninspired, with the exception of Gerard Butler’s effort. As Mike Banning, Butler manages to inject a small helping of gusto whenever he is present on-screen and also during breaks from under-his-breath muttering. The role is ultimately one-dimensional but that’s no more than required, fuelling the simplicity fire. It’s also a dimension more than most of the other deliveries. As President Asher, Aaron Eckhart has very little to do other than conjure the occasional grimace which, incidentally, looks the same irrespective of whether or not he’s missing out on ice-cream or being held hostage by terrorists. Perhaps the most problematic character is Dylan McDermott’s Secret Service agent Dave Forbes whose moral dynamic flip-flops around more than a fish out of water. Female persons are inexcusably shunted to background; the likes of Radha Mitchell, Ashley Judd and Melissa Leo are less than secondary factors. Morgan Freeman ought to get back to be being God.
Olympus Has Fallen unfortunately stumbles and falls from the get-go, struggling to regain any semblance of steady-footedness thenceforth. A decent Gerard Butler performance cannot prevent the inevitable stern wave of unnecessarily harsh undertones from washing away any potential puddles of fun. It’s not great.