I’m heartened by the savviness shown by the audience members during a showing of Olympus Has Fallen this weekend. This was a crowd that was having none of director Antoine Fuqua’s shenanigans. It was clear from the moment the first commercials hit the airwaves that this film would be utter nonsense. It appeared that most of the people in the theater came with the knowledge they would be watching a total piece of shit, and they didn’t care. They were there for the shitty, for the schadenfreude, and for all the other reasons that bad movies entertain us. They were laughing and groaning in all the right places. It was my kind of crowd.
Gerard Butler stars as Mike Banning, a Secret Service agent who used to be part of the President’s detail (played by Aaron Eckhart), until a tragic accident results in the death of the First Lady (Ashley Judd in a blink-and-you’ll-miss-her performance). Now Banning is desk-bound, and it’s obviously killing him. That’s all about to change.
Suddenly, during a visit to the White House by the Prime Minister of South Korea, commandos from North Korea launch an assault on the White House. Banning sees this from his window in the Treasury Building, and races to the White House to help the beleaguered defenders. The North Koreans aren’t screwing around. They’re killing anything that moves. There’s lots of violence in this scene, and while here the violence is at its frenetic peak, it sets the tone for the rest of the film. If a viewer can’t handle headshots and stab wounds, this movie isn’t for them. The violence exists in a very unhappy place between cartoonish and realistic. It would have made for a better shitty movie if it had been dialed back a bit.
Meanwhile, the President, the Vice President (Phil Austin), the Secretary of Defense (Melissa Leo), and other officials have been ushered into a bunker below the White House. It would have been a pretty safe place to be, but the leader of the North Korean commandos has infiltrated the South Korean delegation, and he and his people are in the bunker with the President. They take him hostage, and it becomes official: the White House has been taken by a foreign power (Or has it? The movie never makes clear if the evil Kang (Rick Yune) is working for the North or if he’s a rogue terrorist. Either way, the White House has been captured.)
Over at the Pentagon, the Speaker of the House (Morgan Freeman) has been rushed into a war room and informed that, due to the situation at the White House, he is now the Acting President of the United States. Nothing too out of sorts about that. The 25th Amendment provides for the appointment of an Acting President should certain conditions arise, and while there are procedures that would be difficult to meet in the middle of an attack on Washington that the Amendment does not address, the Speaker becoming President in this situation does appear to pass muster. Anyway, now Morgan Freeman is stuck in a room with a bunch of people for the rest of the movie, trying to manage Banning, who is now waging a one-man war against the hostiles in the White House. Wow, things sure do move fast in this flick.
That’s a good thing, too, because Olympus Has Fallen can best be described as putrid. It thrives on cliché and stupidity. Butler’s Banning is the type of steely, one-dimensional, one-liner delivering action movie star that was both the shame and the success of 1980s Hollywood. How much audiences have changed since then can be evidenced by the fact such a character is now regarded as ridiculous. No one buys that a guy like Banning is real. No one gives him the benefit of the doubt at all. Were this a self-aware film, that would not be a problem. But it’s not. Fuqua tried to tell a sincere story, and he failed miserably. As for the other performances, Eckhart had all the presidential gravitas of Bill Pullman, while Melissa Leo garnered some of the loudest howls from the audience. She was hilarious in her over the top performance, reaching a nadir when she screamed the Pledge of Allegiance as she was being dragged from the bunker by her hair. Just epic. As for Morgan Freeman, he was as reliable as ever, but still earned some snickers with his earnest, straight man performance.
It’s not that the story in Olympus Has Fallen is too outlandish. It is that, of course, but the movie seems designed specifically for the brainless, and it makes the mistake of thinking that the majority of the moviegoing public fit that description. From the large amount of laughing I heard in the theater at pivotal points, it appears Fuqua and company were the only ones who didn’t get that the film is a joke.
There’s just no way that a film that hits the notes this does can be treated as anything but a showcase in absurdity. And just when things appear to coalesce out of all the chaos, a new wrinkle is introduced, in the form of a secret computer in the White House that has the ability to explode all the ICBMs in the United States’ arsenal in their silos, rendering the lower 48 a radioactive wasteland. Fortuitously for Kang, the three people that have the code to activate such a stupid invention are all in the bunker with him. Now Banning is charged with not just rescuing the President (he already spent some time rescuing the President’s son), but with saving the country from nuclear fire. No pressure.
Someone could spend a few thousand words dissecting everything this flick gets wrong about how the government and nuclear warheads work, but that’d be a waste of time. The movie is already enough of a mess without pointing out its conflicts with realism. This is a movie that a viewer is supposed to let wash over them without thought, without caring. It almost does just that, but its total lack of lightness means that the absurdity isn’t as effective as it should be. It’s shitty, but not fun shitty. I’ve said lots of bad things about Alien: Resurrection, but at least it was more fun than Olympus Has Fallen.