This may come as a shock to you, but a movie starring Gerard Butler and featuring terrorists seizing the White House is not a fantastic movie that will collect a pile of Academy Awards. You will probably not tell your grandchildren where you were when this movie came out. I just wanted to get that shocking revelation out of the way right up front.
That said, Olympus Has Fallen is not actually that bad of a movie. It’s a perfect example of the problems with any star, number, or thumb based rating system for films. It sets out to be a solid hard-R action film, and it succeeds at that. It is entertaining in exactly the niche that it fits itself into. Now this usually leads down a rabbit hole of accusations that just because a film sets out to be crap doesn’t give it a free pass for being crap, et cetera. That rabbit hole contains more strawmen and false equivalence than a southern state senator pontificating on sex issues.
Sometimes you just feel like eating a big juicy hamburger, and criticizing said burger for not being a steak is sort of missing the point. And yes, in this metaphor that makes Michael Bay films shit tacos, gratuitous nudity the milkshake, and bad child actors the soggy side of vegetables that no one wants and just pretend aren’t part of the actual meal.
Olympus Has Fallen is Die Hard in the White House. No I don’t mean that it’s like that. It actually is that. As in, there are frequent points at which it seems like the writer couldn’t think of what to have happen next after realizing that he hadn’t hit enough pages yet to actually go straight to the climactic fight, and so just inserted a scene right from Die Hard’s script. Butler never actually says “yippee ki-yay” but he probably accidentally said it on a take or two in some of the scenes.
The central plot and McGuffin are so atrociously disconnected from any concept of reality that it might induce brain aneurysm if you think about it too much. The plot holes have their own zip codes, the illogic of the characters so profound that one feels sorry for mocking them too hard since it’s probably an achievement for them to just manage to tie their shoes in the morning. Every time the movie flashes to the hostage situation and lets the bad guys talk, one has to take deep breaths to avoid losing consciousness from the field of stupidity blazing from the screen.
But the cast! Someone must have called in every favor they ever had, because they had top notch actors scattered throughout this thing. Ashley Judd for First Lady! Melissa Leo for Secretary of Defense! Angela Bassett, head of the Secret Service! Aaron Eckhart for President! Dylan McDermott as former Secret Service agent! Radha Mitchell as Butler’s obligatory worried wife. And of course there’s Morgan Freeman, because who the hell else would you turn to as Speaker of the House and acting President in a film like this?
The first hour or so of the film is superb though. It is a taut progression of slowly growing tension that eventually erupts into a magnificent and unflinchingly brutal action sequence that sets up the rest of the film. It earns a hard-R rating in spades. And there are two elements that make it work. First, there is an actual sense of tactics, the battle unfolding with more the logic of a murderous heist than a straight fight. Second, the film makes good use of the setting, laying waste to the center of Washington DC, an area familiar to anyone who has watched enough movies and television to feel like they could almost find their way around without a map. It tugs at those little strings that resonate with memories of 9/11, with terrified people running in the streets, satellite photos of the smoke rising from the wreckage of the National Mall. Of course it’s manipulative, but if you’re going to make a movie about terrorists seizing the White House and can’t manage to dredge up memories of 9/11 then you probably should just turn in your director’s card for sheer incompetence.
Olympus Has Fallen is like playing a really immersive video game that has a terrible overarching plot, such that you toss down the controller and go to the bathroom during the interminable and unskippable cut scenes. The cut scenes don’t exactly ruin the game, but you really wish that they weren’t there at all. Olympus Has Fallen would be a fantastic one hour action film. As it is, it has an extra forty minutes of scenery chewing cut scenes. But it did manage to shove a bunch of very talented actors into those cut scenes to make them slightly more palatable, and of course the low tones of Morgan Freeman never hurt anything.
Steven Lloyd Wilson is a hopeless romantic and the last scion of Norse warriors and the forbidden elder gods. His novel, ramblings, and assorted fictions coalesce at www.burningviolin.com. You can email him here and order his novel here.