Olympus Has Fallen (2013)

Posted on September 11, 2013

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Synopsis

Secret Service agent Mike Banning (Gerard Butler) has one of the top assignments in his profession, guarding President Benjamin Asher (Aaron Eckhart), First Lady Margaret Asher (Ashley Judd), and their son Connor (Finley Jacobsen). Then there is a tragic accident, and Banning is transferred.

That means that he is working in the Treasury Building when terrorists attack the White House and capture the President. Banning manages to get into the building, and sets about saving the world.

Short Version

This movie got me right in the feels. I loved it.

Long Version

Before I start second-guessing success, let’s get the basics out of the way – character, context, conflict, etc.

The cast in this movie is phenomenal. I want to single out Ashley Judd right off the bat. She does a fantastic job of making her character matter. Although she is only on screen briefly, her character’s shadow looms over the rest of the movie. The character of the First Lady is actually one of the rare exceptions where we do not need to know her greatest desire and her greatest fear. We just have to care about her, and we do. Brava!

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Mike Banning’s greatest desire is both to get back to the pinnacle of his profession and to make up for the tragedy at the beginning of the movie. The chemistry between Butler and Eckhart borders on homoerotic. They make you believe that their characters are friends. Banning’s greatest fear is that he won’t be able to save Connor or the President. It’s simple, it’s clear, it’s served up to us economically, and we get on with the movie.

Scene from the movie 'Olympus Has Fallen'

President Asher is a family man and the leader of the free world. Aaron Eckhart makes that clear and distinct. He’s afraid, ultimately, that as a human being he is not up to the tasks before him. He wants to protect his country and his son.

So far, so good, right? We have characters, conflict, and context; and from them flow plot. Except we’ve only talked about protagonists so far.

And there things fall down.

First, there’s Secret Service agent turned traitor, Forbes (Dylan McDermott). He gets a brief moment with President Asher where he asks questions many of us would like to ask. Why did the banks get a pass after the recession? Why have we allowed so many jobs to go overseas? Why do we give corporations free passes for poisoning us and destroying our environment? How is it legal for corporations, under Citizens United, to buy political candidates in secret? That said, he’s just an angry white guy. We’ve got no background on him. There’s never an explanation of why he went from guarding the President of the United States to vicious traitor.

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Then there’s Kang (Rick Yune). Nothing about this guy makes sense. He’s a North Korean who grew up in South Korea and is angry at the United States because when his parents defected, his mother was killed by an American land mine. Okay, I can accept that, but how did he get so brainwashed by North Korea? The man grew up in a free country with free access to information. Why would he believe some of the incredible bullshit about North Korea? Seriously: North Koreans are taught that the tallest mountain in the world is in North Korea.

Rick Yune is terrific. He carries his role as an actor, and he is physically a worthy opponent in one-on-one fights. It’s just that the script paints Kang as the Oriental villain, scary because he doesn’t look like white people and comes from a place we do not understand. The audience and the actors deserve more.

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And yes, I am mildly uncomfortable criticizing Antoine Fuqua (director; The Replacement Killers, Training Day, Tears of the Sun, King Arthur, Shooter) for any kind of racism.

Now, not all movies can be The Day of the Jackal. We can’t always see as much about the bad guys as we can about the good guys. We can’t always get equal treatment. So writers and directors have to be careful to show us dissatisfaction and reasonable actions. A fanatic like Kang must be grounded somehow, or the audience blieves that he will fail because he is irrational.

Now let’s second-guess some success.

First off, let me say that Olympus Has Fallen made a profit in just four months after its release. Of course, by then it was playing in second-run theaters (which is where I saw it). Generally speaking, for there to be a sequel, a movie has to make three times its budget. This movie is not even close.

Action

Setting technical quibbles aside for later, we should review action. Action should reveal character or advance story. It should advance story by resolving a plot point, teaching the protagonist something he (or she) will need later, or escalating the stakes.

The first action in Olympus Has Fallen is the tragic accident. This reveals Banning’s character, and sets up the conflict between him and the President.

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The next action begins with the assault on the White House. This advances the story.

From there on in, the action with Banning is well-filmed but, frankly, it has zero consequences. There is no escalation. We know Banning is going to live until the end of the movie. It’s a fun ride, but you know where it ends. After a while, I just wanted to get there.

On the other hand, there are separate sequences with Asher, Kang, and the President’s staff. Those have real suspense. We know that Asher will live at least until the final battle, but everyone else is up for grabs. These scenes, when Kang is beating computer codes out of key staff members, reveal character for everyone.

Except.

“Do this or I’ll kill you” depends on fear overcoming rational thought. Rationally, we know that Kang and his team are racing against time. Sooner or later, the US military is going to come in. Sooner or later, someone will make a mistake and the siege will end. They must get the computer codes before then. Therefore a rational hostage would refuse to give up a code, even against Presidential orders. The rational hostage would hold out as long as possible, stalling the terrorists. A rational hostage knows that beatings and torture mean that the terrorists are losing control, and therefore the hostages are winning. At tremendous cost, I grant you, but still winning.

Writers: This is a cliche. Stop using it.

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Sexism

Honestly, the first thing that I thought when I finished watching Olympus Has Fallen was that there was no reason for a woman to see the movie. That’s a huge failure. Considering how many women buy movie tickets, this movie missed out on a huge potential audience.

First, the marketing showed few, if any, of the female characters (the Secret Service Director, played by Angela Bassett; the Secretary of Defense, played by Melissa Leo; Banning’s girlfriend, played by Radha Mitchell; and the First Lady, played by Ashley Judd). It did not begin to hint at the emotional core of the story or at the relationships between characters.

Please understand: I am not stereotyping the reasons why women go to the movies. What I am saying is that lots of people, men and women, want to see more than people shooting guns and stuff blowing up. We want an emotional story arc. We want characters. As a gross (and therefore inherently inaccurate) generalization, women tend to rate those things as more important than men rate them. So the marketing failed to draw audience.

This is crucial, Hollywood: Women in general, and older audiences, want an emotional core to the story. If there is one, make sure to show it off.

At one point in Arnold Schwarzenegger’s career, in the mid-1980s, critics predicted the success of his films according to whether or not he took his clothes off. Commando and Predator were big successes, but Raw Deal was not.

Gerard Butler has one scene without his shirt, and this movie didn’t turn enough profit to generate any sequels.

Before anyone starts throwing rocks at me, let me clarify: I am not saying that this movie would have made more money if Gerard Butler spent more time naked. What I am saying, is that Gerard Butler does not make most of his money from action movies. Here, let’s look at some of his recent films:

  • 300: Action, mostly naked, makes tons of money

  • P.S. I Love You: Relationship, mostly clothed, turns a profit

  • RocknRolla: Thriller, mostly clothed, lost money

  • The Ugly Truth: Relationship, some nudity, plus Katherine Heigl, seriously respectable profit

  • Gamer: Action, mostly clothed, lost money

  • The Bounty Hunter: Relationship, mostly clothed, plus Jennifer Aniston, turns a respectable profit

See my point? Gerard Butler and his agent seem to be choosing projects based on prestige and visibility, rather than playing to his strong suit. When you put him in a relationship movie (P.S. I Love You, The Ugly Truth, The Bounty Hunter), men and women both go to see him and his movies make a profit.

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One of Gerard Butler’s strengths as an actor is his ability to take us along on his character’s emotional journey through the story. It’s one of the reasons why Olympus Has Fallen is so good, despite my criticisms. However, it also throws a weakness into harsh relief. Radha Mitchell plays Leah, Manning’s girlfriend. She doesn’t even rate a last name. We know they’re relationship is troubled, but then Gerard Butler has to carry the relationship on for the rest of the movie with phone calls. We want to know more about them and their relationship. Did they meet before or after the tragedy? Why are they troubled? Why do they care about each other? There isn’t time in the movie for us to find out.

As good as he is at action, Gerard Butler movies need strong emotional relationships and stories to succeed.

Technical Quibbles

I always find technical quibbles in action movies. Partly, it’s because I’ve been a gadget freak since elementary school. Partly it’s because I’ve read a ton of technothrillers. Mostly it’s because I was an Army officer. If you want to skip this part, please feel free. It changes nothing about my overall feeling for the movie.

My first technical quibble came at the tragic accident scene. It seemed super unrealistic to me that there was no helicopter cover for the President of the United States, and that there was no medical support nearby. You would think that when the President was in transit, there would have been ambulances and medevac units standing by. We don’t see it.

My second quibble came with the assault on the White House. Let’s start with the airplane. The modified C-130 Hercules aircraft should never have gotten that close to the White House. Mostly this stems from the fact that modern air combat is not visually exciting. The intercept zone for Washington, DC is several miles in diameter. If the fighters intercepted the C-130 at a realistic distance, you might have seen the Washington monument, but you would not have been able to pick out the White House. The danger would not have seemed imminent.

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It’s my belief that if ports opened on the sides of an intruding aircraft, any flanking interceptors would have moved. They would not have waited to see multi-barrel machine guns deploy and shoot them down.

Those machine guns raise another technical issue. They point out from the sides of the aircraft, yet when they shoot up the city, the bullets are coming down at a pretty steep angle. Granted, you could accomplish that by banking the plane, but we never see that. It’s a ballistic impossibility as shown on screen.

Then there are the White House missile defenses. Yes, the White House has them. They aren’t a secret. I am sure there are defenses that are secret, but the Secret Service has Stinger surface-to-air missiles. In the film, they fire one missile volley, which the plane counters with chaff. They have plenty of time to fire again, but the movie just drops that plot point. There is no second layer of defenses (e.g., a Phalanx missile defense system). It broke my suspension of disbelief again.

Finally, there is the ground assault. Most of it is brilliant. However, I have a few quibbles. For example, the movie never deals with body armor. None of the White House security people seem to be wearing any. That’s ridiculous. Now, body armor is no use against heavy machine guns or rocket-propelled grenades. However, the guards get torn up by small arms fire, and again, it threw me out of the movie.

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Then there is how close ground vehicles get to the White House. Since 9/11, there have been concrete barriers in place to stop that kind of thing, and the guard posts must have anti-vehicle rockets. Yet the terrorists drive a couple of heavy trucks up, blow off the wheels, and fire machine guns out of them. The police serving near the White House must have counter-terrorism training, yet they do not rush the trucks and drive the terrorists out with tear gas or flash-bang grenades.

Because of my background, these are the kinds of things that annoy me. They break my suspension of disbelief. These things happen to everybody. If you’re a doctor, you notice medical mistakes. If you’re a pilot, you notice aviation mistakes. My background is military, so I notice things involving weapons, explosives, and tactics.

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Conclusion

I spent a lot of words criticizing Olympus Has Fallen. It does have plot holes and some technical issues, Olympus Has Fallen is nevertheless a thrilling roller-coaster ride. If you’re looking for a slam-bang action movie, this is definitely one of the better ones. Watch it!

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Posted in: Movies