Ring for the Butler
Warning: This review discusses aspects of the plot.
With the Die Hard series recently cloning itself with execrable effect, it’s almost reassuring to see someone else at it once again – an addition to the ‘Die Hard on a/in the…’ sub-genre that includes old favourites like Under Siege, Cliffhanger, Passenger 57 and, er, Executive Decision.
In Olympus Has Fallen, the formula incorporates an unlikely topical twist. With North Korea placing itself on a war footing and the adjective ‘bellicose’ becoming the most printed in national newspapers, there’s cause to wonder if Pyongyang has struck a deal with Millennium Films to help market what would otherwise have been labelled an enjoyably ludicrous thriller.
A breakaway terrorist group, not directly affiliated with Kim Jong-un, but acting with his presumed consent, take over the White House in 13 minutes flat. How the group acquired a USAF C-130 transport plane with airborne counter measures, missiles and machine guns, as well as smuggling rocket launchers past customs in order to arm its ground militia is none of our business; it did and they spend the duration of the attack killing a pleasing number of tourists.
Naturally they’ve reckoned without former secret service man and Special Forces commando, Mike Banning, bulked out by Gerard Butler, who uses the ensuing chaos as cover to enter the building and commence a rear guard action against the invaders. Banning has something to prove having failed to save the first lady from a road accident some 18 months earlier. That’s meant the end of his close friendship with Aaron Eckhart’s commander-in-chief and his role as surrogate Dad to the President’s dull and neglected son, given human form by Finley Jacobsen.
With the formula for this kind of movie established by that other Presidential spin-off, Air Force One, there’s the sense that Training Day’s Antoine Fuqua should be able to stage this one in his sleep, yet he contrives to blow it, making his take on this well-worn story matter-of-fact, when it should be tense and straight forward, when any student of the original Die Hard could have told him that the trick is to create a battle of wills between hero and foe in which both are beset by a series of reversals and complications.
Indicative of the way that Olympus Has Fallen is less a movie and more a series of interconnected scenes that just happen one after the other, through thankfully in the right order, the terrorist’s plane simply arrives in the skies above Washington, hitherto unchallenged. There’s no United 93 style build-up, with concerned Air Traffic Controllers trying to raise the craft, then raising the military, scenes that might have primed the audience for the carnage to come, just the event itself.
Once inside the unwanted houseguests want missile codes from their captors but unfortunately it doesn’t occur to writers Creighton Rothenberger and Katrin Benedict that by putting the terrorists in the same room as all the people they need to action their plan, all tension dissipates. As success is solely contingent upon acquiring these codes, we’re at a loss to understand why they go about getting the information so slowly, or why they bother trying to find the President’s son for leverage when they intend to crack his code on their own.
Perhaps they’d read the screenplay and knew the Prez would never tell, or that Butler would smuggle out the presidential loinfruit with consummate ease, but it might have improved the movie if that precious cargo had changed hands a few times, or if the terrorists had been forced to work harder to initiate their scheme because of Butler’s interventions. Instead, Gerard spends most of the running time killing henchman who are in no way integral to the Koreans’ mission and the climax, in which our man confronts the communist interloper, should be impossible as both villain and President are enclosed in an impregnable underground nuclear bunker. I suppose Rick Yune must have left the door open but it does make you wonder if such a strategist deserves to survive.
Despite the lack of internal logic and the failure of all concerned to subvert expectations and generate tension, Olympus… does have one or two things going for it. In Gerard Butler it boasts a likable, suitably gruff leading man, who is occasionally gifted schlock dialogue like “let’s play a game of fuck off. You go first”, as well as the opportunity to kill in amusing ways: bludgeoning a terrorist to death with a bust of Abe Lincoln for example. Add to this Fuqua’s taste for sadism; there’s a high body count and plenty of inhumane treatment; and a pace that seldom flags and you have a perfectly enjoyable, albeit disposable evening in the cinema. That said there is a single line of dialogue that interrogates America’s sanctions against some of the poorest people in the world. And who said this kind of thing couldn’t be thought provoking?