Film review: Olympus Has Fallen

Gerard Butler alongside Aaron Eckhart in Olympus Has Fallen. Picture: Contributed
Gerard Butler alongside Aaron Eckhart in Olympus Has Fallen. Picture: Contributed
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IT’S ‘Die Hard in a Building’, but as dumb action thrillers go this one hits the right notes with Alistair Harkness and doesn’t demand too much acting from its star.

OLYMPUS HAS FALLEN (15)

Directed by: ANTOINE FUQUA

Starring: GERARD BUTLER, AARON ECKHART, MORGAN FREEMAN, DYLAN MCDERMOTT, MELISSA LEO, RADHA MITCHELL

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Back in the 1990s, before Hollywood discovered the true box-office potential of comic books, movie executives and screenwriters reared on Don Simpson and Jerry Bruckheimer’s “high concept” filmmaking ethos attempted to distil the essence of that particular blockbuster buzzphrase even further by pitching, selling and marketing movies in reference to the landmark hits of the 1980s. Top Gun was, of course, a favourite point of comparison (“see Days of Thunder: it’s Top Gun … on wheels!”), but no film inspired more knock-offs than Die Hard. We got Die Hard on a mountain (Cliffhanger), on a boat (Under Siege), on a bus (Speed), on a train (Under Siege 2) and several times on a plane (Passenger 57, Airforce One).

It got to the point where the notion of a capable guy who finds himself battling a terrorist threat by being trapped in the wrong place at the wrong time became so familiar that even Die Hard ditched the formula for its third and subsequent outings, leading to one brilliant – though perhaps apocryphal – tale of one clueless screenwriter pitching his latest idea for a movie as “Die Hard … in a building!”

If said writer had made that building the White House, however, he might have been on to something given that this smack-your-head simple idea is now the basis for two new blockbusters. Later this year we’ll get to see Channing Tatum as a vest-wearing off-duty cop taking on terrorists after they seize the president’s residence in White House Down. First up, though, we have our own Gerard Butler as a recently reassigned secret service agent, also taking on terrorists after they seize the president’s residence in Olympus Has Fallen.

The fact that the title of the latter is code for the title of the former should give you some idea of how bereft of original ideas Hollywood continues to be – and if it doesn’t, the way Olympus has Fallen lifts several key scenes straight out of Die Hard without bothering to disguise the theft certainly will.

Nevertheless, Olympus has Fallen does have an admirably over-the-top, hyper-violent momentum all its own. Not only does that help distinguish it from the recent glut of tepid, 12A-rated action movies such as Taken 2 and A Good Day to Die Hard, it actually makes watching Butler’s clunky, try-hard attempts to capture the combination of old-fashioned brawn and wisecracking attitude that Bruce Willis brought to his first outing as John McClane preferable to watching Willis’ latter-day reprisals of his most iconic role.

That Olympus Has Fallen plays to Butler’s limited strengths as an actor is evident from the way his interactions with others are kept to a minimum outwith a combat situation. Always better when playing B-movie action heroes, Butler may have to get through a few honking set-up scenes to establish the awkward bond his secret service agent Mike Banning has with Aaron Echkart’s recently widowed president, but from the moment North Korean terrorists mount a full-scale assault on the White House, he’s in his head-cracking, face-smacking element.

That extended assault on DC is actually the first sign that Olympus Has Fallen is going to deliver old-school, 1980s-style mayhem. Like a live-action version of Team America: World Police played straight, the film, which is directed by Training Day’s Antoine Fuqua, delivers a level of destruction so extreme and over-the-top it’s impossible not to get swept up in the ridiculousness of seeing high-tech aerial bombers laying waste to the Washington Monument while “covert” ground assault teams charge across the White House lawn, rocket-launchers at the ready.

Once inside the White House, Butler also embraces the silliness of the situation as he runs around torturing, tearing apart and generally taking out bad guys while simultaneously trying free the president from the clutches of a nuke-mad North Korean terrorist (Rick Yune), locate the president’s young son (who is hiding in the building), and deal with conflicting advice from external government sources (represented here by Morgan Freeman’s acting president and Robert Forrester’s warmongering Pentagon commander).

Needless to say, there are no deep and meaningful themes to be excavated, and beyond confirming North Korea as Hollywood’s new go-to-source for villainy (it’s less contentious than trying to portray al-Qaeda-esque bad guys and doesn’t threaten Hollywood interests in China’s emerging cinematic market either) it’s not really interested in making real-world parallels. It’s also hard not to feel a little sorry for the supporting players, particularly Eckhart, who may be introduced sparring with Butler, but is subsequently denied the action role Harrison Ford’s kidnapped president enjoyed in the Clinton-era Airforce One on account of spending the entire movie with his hands literally tied. Perhaps that’s a sneaky comment on Obama’s presidency. If it is, it’s almost certainly accidental.

What Olympus Has Fallen does succeed in doing, however, is delivering brain-off entertainment – and with it, a context in which Gerard Butler makes sense as a movie star.