Olympus Has Fallen (United States, 2013)

March 21, 2013
A movie review by James Berardinelli
Olympus Has Fallen Poster

There's irony to be found in the recognition that the best Die Hard to be released in 2013 isn't the franchise's official entry, A Good Day to Die Hard, but the White House-based copycat, Olympus Has Fallen. And, while Gerard Butler is no Bruce Willis, his Mike Banning is a better facsimile of John McClane than the guy Willis is pretending to play these days. There's also an element of 24 to be found here, although Butler's Banning, unfettered by TV ratings, is considerably more homicidal than Kiefer Sutherland's Jack Bauer.

Despite being released in March, Olympus Has Fallen offers all the staples of a big summer movie: destruction on an epic scale, plenty of shoot-outs and battle sequences, and a kick-ass hero who, despite being battered and bloodied, never gives up. Although the film's real-world credibility is shaky, it works on its own terms. The suspension of disbelief bar isn't that difficult to clamber over. 9/11 shifted it down considerably for this sort of motion picture.

These days, the North Koreans have become the go-to movie bad guys (belatedly taking over the spot occupied by the Soviets during the Cold War). The rationale behind the decision is solid: Hollywood films don't play in North Korea so there's no negative box office impact and there aren't a lot of pro-Korean pundits out there pounding the pulpit. Olympus Has Fallen hedges its bets by describing the attackers as "Korean terrorists" rather than commandos associated with Kim Jong Un's government but it’s a none-too-subtle sleight of hand. After all, the goal of the villains is to reunite the peninsula by allowing North Korea's army to sweep south without the United States to impede them.

Gerard Butler, who has been slumming in a series of lifeless romantic comedies and other barely watchable productions, breathes a little life back into his career by playing Mike Banning, the lone secret service agent who's alive and active in the White House after a lightning-fast attack results in the president (Aaron Eckhart) and vice president being taken hostage. The special effects intensive sequence in which the White House falls also features a plane crashing into the Washington Monument and a fair amount of on-ground carnage as innocent bystanders are strafed by enemy fire. The sequence is well executed but this sort of thing isn't as fun as it was before 9/11.

The storyline is simple: It's up to Banning to help the president's young son escape from the White House then, when that is accomplished, he has to go back and try to get out the Commander in Chief. The scenario is of the Die Hard variety with the action confined to a contained area, the bad guys implementing a plan that's more convoluted than it initially appears to be, and a traitor in the mix. Kang (Rick Yune) is no Hans Gruber, but who is? Olympus Has Fallen loses some momentum toward the end. The fifteen minute climax feels a little rushed and the Red LED countdown is unnecessarily cheesy.

Perhaps the most noteworthy aspect of Olympus Has Fallen is the level of violence. Banning is so brutal in the way he deals with enemy combatants that it's almost refreshing. No pussyfooting around. No second chances. Do unto others as they would have done unto you if you hadn't gotten to them first. One scene in which Banning uses throat-slitting and other forms of torture makes it clear that he will do what's necessary. Director Antoine Fuqua once had an issue with studio interference when his hard-R King Arthur was neutered to get a PG-13. There's never any question that Olympus Has Fallen is headed into R-rated territory.

Unlike John McClane, who was an everyman stuck in an extraordinary situation, Banning is ex-special forces, so he's well-suited for the killing from the shadows required of his character. Butler's approach to the role is a little dour - one can't help but wonder whether Olympus Has Fallen might have been a little more fun if the lead character was allowed a little more wit. Reliable actors like Aaron Eckhart, Morgan Freeman, Angela Bassett, and Melissa Leo turn in competent supporting performances. Rick Yune is a little weak as the bad guy - he's not dominating or frightening enough. And Radha Mitchell's part as Banning's wife should have been left on the cutting room floor. She serves no purpose other than to add a few minutes to the running time. I kept expecting her character to have some kind of payoff but there isn't one.

This is hard-core, high stakes action with an element of the cataclysmic spectacle incorporated to raise its profile. It delivers what it promises and, by doing so, puts to shame lesser movies that lack the courage of their convictions. Like Dredd, it uses violence to spike the adrenaline-and-testosterone cocktail it offers.

Olympus Has Fallen (United States, 2013)

Run Time: 1:58
U.S. Release Date: 2013-03-22
MPAA Rating: "R" (Violence, Profanity)
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1