Wednesday, August 21, 2019

Summer School: 'Olympus Has Fallen' (2013)

Once again, I'm looking back at previous installments of some of this summer's big returning franchises.

When Olympus Has Fallen was released in 2013, most of the media attention was focused on it as the first of two very similar movies about terrorists attacking the White House, released just months apart. Yet somehow, while both Olympus and Roland Emmerich's White House Down (released three months later) were idiotic, loud, overblown action movies with nonsensical plotting and terrible dialogue, Olympus became a huge surprise hit, spawning an unlikely franchise for grim, single-minded Secret Service agent Mike Banning (Gerard Butler).

As a character, Mike is completely uninteresting, with barely any personality or back story in this movie, even with an opening prologue that provides him with motivation to seek redemption. As a conduit for violence, he's brutally efficient, plowing his way through dozens of faceless henchmen in his single-minded mission to rescue captive U.S. President Benjamin Asher (Aaron Eckhart). The movie opens with a car accident in a snowstorm as Asher and his family are on their way to a Christmas party, and Mike is following behind. Mike saves Asher from a car that's skidded off the road and is dangling from a bridge, but Asher's wife (Ashley Judd) plummets to her death, and Mike is tortured by his inability to save them both.

A year and a half later, Mike has been relegated to a desk job at the Treasury Department, but of course he manages to infiltrate the White House when it's taken over by a Korean terrorist organization. Mike is so absurdly competent that literally every other character, aside from Asher and his aides, is disposable cannon fodder. Either they're easily dispatched minions of terrorist mastermind Kang Yeonsak (Rick Yune), or they're fellow U.S. operatives who lack Mike's skills and apparent invulnerability (he makes it through the entire movie without so much as a humanizing flesh wound). Mike single-handedly takes down the bad guys, to the point where he's giving Speaker of the House (and acting president) Allan Trumbull (Morgan Freeman) orders, as the country's top military officials sit dumbfounded in a control room.

Butler is one of Hollywood's most inexplicably successful actors, and his performance here is just as flat and one-dimensional as usual, complete with his typically terrible American accent. Poor Radha Mitchell is stuck in the suffering-spouse role as Mike's nurse wife in a handful of scenes, but Mike never comes off like a real person. The easy shorthand for this movie is "Die Hard in the White House," but John McClane had a genuine emotional life that made his heroism more meaningful (at least in the first movie). The filmmakers here (including director Antoine Fuqua in one of his worst efforts) are interested only in excessive violence and over-the-top patriotism, from the slow-motion unfurling of the American flag to Melissa Leo's secretary of defense literally reciting the Pledge of Allegiance as the bad guys drag her away. It's crass, disingenuous pandering that turned out be disgustingly effective.

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