As past reviews should indicate, Schlockmania has a deep and abiding love for Hollywood’s action movies of the 1980’s and 1990’s. The best ones, like Die Hard, remain great examples of mainstream filmmaking. Even when action flicks from this era veer into an Invasion U.S.A. level of jingoistic camp, they’re still a hell of a lot of fun. There’s still a market for this stuff (look at all the action fare that litters the direct-to-video world) and fans hope it will make the kind of Hollywood comeback that the success of The Expendables suggested is possible for the genre.
Unfortunately, the attempts at action flick revival have been hit-and-miss thus far – and the latest attempt, Olympus Has Fallen, definitely occupies the lower rungs of the “miss” side. The familiar plot begins with Secret Service agent Mike Banning (Gerard Butler) having to make an impossible choice when the president’s car swerves off an icy bridge and is about to plunge into the waters below – save President Benjamin Asher (Aaron Eckhart) or his wife Margaret (Ashley Judd)? Mike saves the President and is repaid with a demotion to a desk job at the Treasury.
Mike of course longs for a chance to redeem himself – and that arrives when North Korean terrorist Kang (Rick Yune) infiltrates the security detail of a South Korean delegation and hatches a world domination plan. Using a bomber plane and hordes of men with guns, Kang storms the White House and kidnaps the President. Mike tries to help his old Secret Service buddies and ends up trapped alone in the White House with Kang’s crew of bloodthirsty soldiers. He makes contact with the Speaker Of The House (Morgan Freeman) and the two form an unlikely alliance, with the Speaker trying to deal with Kang and his demands while Mike tries to thin out of the villains’ ranks and save the innocents trapped inside, including the President’s son (Finley Jacobson).
The many problems with Olympus Has Fallen start at the story level: the screenplay by husband/wife team Creighton Rothenberger and Katrin Benedikt is a shamelessly derivative assemblage of plot points and scenes from Die Hard, Air Force One, Red Dawn, etc. To make matters worse, their storytelling style is aggressively hacky: the dialogue is steeped in clichés (“The United States does not negotiate with terrorists!” is actually said by the President) and the plotting is as hole-laden as it is ridiculous, especially a doomsday finale that relies on the U.S. nuclear security system being absurdly simplistic.
The script also constantly tells you exactly where it’s going via inept foreshadowing: when Mike and the President’s kid discuss hiding places in the White House early on, you know a setpiece involving them will follow – and you’ll probably guess who the Secret Turncoat in the White House is several minutes before he helps the enemies out. Simply put, this is amongst the worst screenplays to limp its way into the multiplex this year. It’s the kind of garbage cranked out by people who view screenwriting as a business rather than a way to be creative – and it is breathlessly inane from start to finish.
The wretched nature of the script could be forgiven if the action was decent but that’s not the case here. Director Antoine Fuqua is capable of doing good work – Training Day remains the high-water mark of his career – but he phones it in here. The large scale action scenes are slapped together with really cheap CGI. That might have been budget related but there’s no excuse for the shootouts and hand-to-hand fight scenes, which are all filmed with erratic hand-held camera and chopped up via too-fast editing. To make matters worse, the plot involves the electricity being cut off in the White House so most of the action in the second half takes place in darkness. It feels like Fuqua was trying to rush through the film and get it in the can as possible.
The one thing that anyone on this production spent real money and time on was the casting. Olympus Has Fallen has an amazing cast, especially when you consider the cheap, trashy nature of the production, but it merely uses them as set dressing. For example, Morgan Freeman, Robert Forster and Angela Bassett spend the majority of their scenes in the same command center giving each other grave looks: they manage to do a lot of the best acting here, which is funny when you consider how little they actually get to do besides bark clichés at each other.
The lead actors fare worse: Butler is likeable but his character is a generic Hollywood Action Screenwriting 101 archetype that does little more than gruffly growl profane catchphrases. Despite playing the POTUS, Aaron Eckhart gets to do little more than look pained and be helpless while Melissa Leo presents a contrast, wildly overacting in a thankless role as the woman bureaucrat who gets beaten up by the bad guys (at one point, they drag her away while she’s shouting the Pledge of Allegiance, perhaps the lowlight of her acting career). McDermott is similarly hammy but then again there is little for him to do his cartoonishly written role.
In short, Olympus Has Fallen feels like a particularly lowbrow straight-to-video potboiler that somehow snuck into the multiplex while no one was looking. Even if that description sounds tempting to schlock fans, they are advised to pass this one by.