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Olympus Has Fallen

Reviewed by Greg Frame.

Director Antoine Fuqua
Length 120 mins
Certificate 15 / R
Rating ******----
Filmmaking: 3  Personal enjoyment: 3

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Olympus Has Fallen is, despite appearances, an interesting film for two main reasons: for what it says about the anxieties and concerns of the United States as a global power in the contemporary moment, and for demonstrating Hollywood’s seemingly endless capacity and desire to remake Die Hard (John McTiernan, 1988).

The White House is under siege. America’s bête noire du jour, North Korea, has launched an audacious attack on the president’s home, infiltrating the most closely guarded building in the world with ease. Taking President Asher (Aaron Eckhart) hostage, terrorist Kang (Rick Yune) demands the United States withdraw from the demilitarized zone between North and South Korea. This would inevitably lead to an armed confrontation on the Korean peninsula, and potentially a nuclear war. The only man standing in the way of this eventuality is disgraced former Secret Service agent Mike Banning (Gerard Butler), and it is up to him to rescue the president and save the world.

If that sounds somewhat familiar, it’s because you’ve already seen it about a hundred times before. Olympus Has Fallen is, as the publicity material so desperately wants you to believe, Die Hard in the White House. Except it isn’t. It’s much more like all the other films that followed in Die Hard’s footsteps, taking the original concept (one man against an army of terrorists in a single location), stripping it of its intelligence and humour, and failing to provide central characters as compelling and charismatic as John McClane (Bruce Willis) and Hans Gruber (Alan Rickman). That is not to say, however, that the film is entirely devoid of charm.

What pleased me most about Olympus Has Fallen was, perhaps surprisingly, its earnestness and simplicity. It so passionately believes in its brash, bombastic, unctuously sentimental brand of Americanism that you cannot help but admire it. Chock-full of slow-motion shots of American flags, patriotic speeches and overblown orchestral swells, Olympus Has Fallen cries, bleeds, farts and sneezes America. As president, Asher is so dreary and devoid of irony that he verges on parody (but, it must be stated, doesn’t quite make it). Gerard Butler has about as much charisma as a brick wall, but his desire to atone for his past mistakes and repair his relationship with his former friend, President Asher, is convincing. He needs therapy, and the treatment the film prescribes is some good old-fashioned shooting, killing, maiming and torturing. As in numerous other Hollywood action/disaster movies, violence is therapeutic.

And what violence! Olympus Has Fallen features every conceivable way of blowing someone’s brains out, with more head-stabbing in one film than is strictly necessary. It borders on the tasteless (particularly in the opening attack on Washington, D.C.), but in the end emerges as merely daft. Fuqua’s direction enables it to keep its head above water: the initial siege of the White House is consummately staged and, despite a two-hour running time, the film rips along at a fair pace. The overriding pleasure of the film, however, is counting the number of times it steals chunks from Die Hard, with absolutely zero acknowledgement that it has done so. This is what makes the film rather endearing: despite its bludgeoning stupidity, crass symbolism, offensive stereotypes and bland characters, it is so guileless and po-faced it is very hard to hate it. Rather like a racist elderly relative you forgive because they don’t know any better, Olympus Has Fallen is so desperate to reassert the dominance of a brand of action hero and a model of global politics that simply don’t exist anymore that it probably needs a hug rather than your judgment.

This review was published on April 28, 2013.