Die Hard For America!
Timing is everything. In fact, it is the only thing aiding Antoine Fuqua’s latest disaster venture Olympus Has Fallen. Fresh off the heels of a North Korean announcement about launching pre-emptive nuclear strikes against the United States, and now relatively past the public discourse surrounding gun violence in film nestles this patently forced patriotic thriller. In this story, North Korean terrorists take over the White House, torture the President, and kill anyone in their way. It is the first of two films about the white house’s takeover and demise (Roland Emmerich’s “White House Down” opens in June) to saturate audiences in the span of about two months, and Fuqua is determined to make his entry as explosive as possible. And yet, while the film’s plot and current foreign affairs predictably coincide, Olympus Has Fallen, with all of its pulpy, militaristic pomp, still consequently suffers from the irksome graphic matches of a post 9/11 world.
Even without this vain, the film’s broader displays of terrorism promote viewing resistance. There is such visceral violence being displayed on the screen that appears to be rooted in initiating an instinctual response of sadness, anger, and then ultimately revenge. It spends little time showing the effects of this destruction as much as it does actual destructing. As an enemy stealth bomber swerves over the Washington Mall without any explanation, shooting down fire with such graphically constructed shots, Fuqua enables the antithesis of what he ostensibly desires to garner. He cares, and makes it a point, to show as many American civilian deaths as he possibly can, some with unthinkable rapid pace and others- specifically a scene when the tip of the poorly rendered Washington monument is sliced by the bomber’s wing- with exploitative slow motion, making sure to capture hunks of limestone plummeting to the ground on top of unfortunate targets. It earns its “R” rating.
But it goes beyond the limits of violence on screen trying to unleash the misconceived and bridled animosity from its audience. The North Koreans are bad, and this is how he’s going to make you hate them even more! But Fuqua, along with writers Creighton Rothenberger and Katrin Bednedikt, confuses relevancy with meaning. America has changed as a world player, a country in debt in a new age of warfare. In the film’s desire to make America a solitary figure in a nuclear state, it chooses to rekindle a 1980s Cold War cinematic nostalgia and ideology- to recreate Rambo with modern technology, more clothing, and in the guise of Australian Gerard Butler.
He plays Agent Mike Banning, a former Secret Service agent for President Benjamin Asher (Aaron Eckhart, who gives a Harvey Dent struggle) who resigns after taking the blame for the First Lady’s (Ashley Judd) death in the prologue of the film. Relegated to a desk job, his former protective senses kick-in after Washington comes under fire, led by undercover rogue Kang (Rick Yune) and aided by a defector (Dylan McDermot). They shackle the President along with other high-ranking cabinet members (Melissa Leo most notably) in the White House bunker while the other paramilitary members rip the upstairs apart.
They flock 1600 Pennsylvania in disguised garbage trucks that open missiles on the front door as pedestrians flee from raining bullets above. Banning sweeps through the fire to the inside, witnessing brutal deaths, the only free American still inhabiting the premises. From there, the film becomes a hide-and-seek negotiation as Banning and Kang swap threats and promises while the Koreans forcefully hack America’s nuclear codes. Butler holds his own in combat, trying to make up for the brutally written quips and visual gags the White House rooms provide. To make matters more emotionally charged, the President’s son is still missing, and Banning left things coldly with his wife that morning.
In wake of Zero Dark Thirty, a film that demonstrates the ambiguities of war and the realities of America’s future facing looming questions, Olympus Has Fallen is content to erase any blurred conceptions of reality, and make them simplified, black and white. Well, that’s not entirely true due to a military cabinet that appears amateur in crisis hour. Morgan Freeman takes over as acting Commander in Chief with security advice from officers and military generals (Angela Bassett and Robert Forster) as they nervously video chat with Kang. How does a foreign bomber breach air traffic control? Why did no one realize Kang was the terrorist he now proclaims? Why do the three homeland nuclear missile codes Kang intends to set off all belong to officials tied up? Suspension of disbelief is a staple in any action thriller, but the climax builds like a house of cards, making caricatures out of the country’s elite, dumbing down its parts only to triumphantly and brazenly reeducate them later.
But good and evil are never to be confused in a film like this. We know things are bad when an American flag, punctured with bullet holes, falls majestically to the ground. We know things are good when it’s raised to a sunrise with trumpets blowing. At its core, which has unattractively eroded, this is a tale of redemption of course. Banning gets a chance to redeem himself in the President’s eyes and save the world, killing two birds with one, nay many, large automatic rifles (who needs stones?). And while an ending in a film like this is hard to spoil, I surmise it will have already gone bad long before the freedom credits march on.