After following the Malaysian General Election over the weekend I suddenly gained an appetite to watch an action flick about overthrowing governments, so this flick came to my attention. I originally had no intentions to watch it as I felt it was going to be another re-iteration of Die Hard or even similarly themed films such as Harrison Ford's Air Force One. But the original film I planned to see is not showing after work hours, I guess this will do for now while I wait for Star Trek to come out next Tuesday.
Olympus Has Fallen teaches me that Americans are proud to be Americans, and that the world would crumble if America falls. And if you forget this fact after Aaron Eckhart utters "don't negotiate" prior to capture, don't worry. They will remind you again and again and again between the action sets.
The story didn't surprise or thrill me due to its faithful following of the Die Hard formula (some bad guys take over a building to negotiate for something, using hostages as the bargaining chip, while a lone rogue picks off the bad guys one by one more effectively than the useless police/military/government sitting helplessly in the sidelines). Everything I thought would happen did happen, though compared to many of its predecessors, it takes a lot more liberties in the story's scenario, and seemed unashamed, without subtlety, of how it is just a weak effort to cash in on recent American interest in Korea. Removing the context reduces this film to be a 2 hour reminder that Americans should be very proud to be Americans, and if you are not American you should become American!
As an action film I cannot condemn nor condone it; there are nice fight scenes but nothing innovative or memorable. The fights are quite clear and easy to follow, but I have my reservations about whether the White House, or more accurately Washington D.C. is really susceptible to such an attack after 9/11. It's codenamed Olympus for a reason.
Gerard Butler portrays a convincing former Secret Service Mike Banning who is haunted by his failure to save the President's wife in the past and has burdened himself with the responsibility to save the President from the terrorists. Together with Kang, the main terrorist played by Die Another Day survivor Rick Yune, they are the most bearable part of the film to me because their chemistry and equally strong-willed personalities and motivations is all the real character interaction we get; everyone else in the film is just there to fulfill a cinematic function or character stereotype, and poorly at that.
To the casual movie going audience, I recommend if you just want to watch action and don't care about story and characters as me, you are still better off watching Iron Man 3, or the upcoming Star Trek film. To those who enjoy picking apart films like me, this one is gold, but don't expect to feel satisfied watching this film, unless you are proud to be American and need a 2 hour quasi-propaganda to remind yourself of it!
5.0 / 10.0 (Spoilers Ahead)
One of the elements of this film that bugged me the most is its insistence that the United State of America does not negotiate with terrorists. And yet at every step of the story we see how not only the presidential/military staff at The Pentagon slowly give in to the terrorist demands, but even the president gives in not once, not twice, but 4 times to terrorist demands so that he doesn't have to be directly responsible for the deaths of his fellow hostages. The only person who personifies and stays true to this American principle is the rogue who I guess at this point embodies the real America since he never gave in or gave up.
The end of the film shows the president embracing how American he is by saying that America has won again because they stayed true to who they are and stayed united even under despair, but really it was the underdog who did everything, and so really it is stolen glory and they neither earned nor deserved the proclamation of American supremacy.
I call this quasi-propaganda for this very reason. If the characters playing the White House administration truly wanted to portray America's "we are not afraid of terroists" then none of the hostages should have given up their bits of code to Cerebrus (we'll get to that), and the terrorist's real plan would have failed. They should have welcomed death as an honorable alternative to surrendering their keys to allow the enemy to open pandora's box. And as a side note, they should know they're dead no matter what; that's how skilled terrorists always work. People should know this fact if they studied a Bachelor degree in casual movie watching.
So a true "no negotiations" policy would have made the story much shorter, but the message would be much stronger and effective. Sure the president and vice president would probably have died before Butler could finish all the levels to get to the big boss, but by not giving in they showed that you cannot terrorise America. You kill the president the Vice president will take over after SWAT eventually wipes you out. And even if you kill the Vice president too (which they did) there's the speaker of the house. The people will just elect another president after this blows over. And because the film took a more middle-of-the-road approach to show the humanity of Americans it actually illustrates how the "no negotiation" policy doesn't work in practice because it dehumanizes the leaders if they make immoral decisions on principle. But still, proud to be American!
Gerard Butler's performance as the rogue is convincing and enjoyable, possibly due to my positive experience of his efforts in Law Abiding Citizen, and that he didn't sing in this film. His relationship with the president's family was established hastily, but not really explored after the first 5 minutes. You can only really see the relationship through Butler's disillusionment post-accident, and his determination to get to the bunker post-occupation.
Kang is also a rogue, except his motivations are even more deeply rooted in national grief, hoping for the reunification of North and South, while blaming Americans for interfering with the process. He is no different from any other hatred-driven, single-minded terrorists in hostage-rescue stories since the 1980s. However I am grateful they did find an ethnically Korean actor to portray the character at least.
Their banters are engaging, they have equally fierce spirits and know how to push each others' buttons, because they actually have similar personalities albeit different objectives. Sadly their fight scene at the end was far too short and honestly, I felt like they deserved a proper climax and some famous last words. But all we get is Butler keeping his promise to stab Kang in the brain with a knife.
All this positive about the film is easily offset by horribly written side villains, in the form of ex-secret service traitor Dave Forbes. While his acquaintance and colleaguehood with Banning is established prior to the terrorist occupation and him turning sides, his motivations and how he got engulfed in this conspiracy is really murky. From what the film has shown me he is the only insider who helped orchestrate and organise the stolen USAF warplane, the next-generation Hydra weapon (which by the way is not even close to this-generation weaponry) AND somehow managed to ensure he would be allowed to be part of a heads-of-state meeting despite no longer being in the secret service or having any ambassador/auditing responsibilities with the South Korean government.
This character's presence and role in the film is not merely a nitpick (don't worry will be quite a few), because he is perhaps the trump card of Kang, and so you would think he should have been the real villain and the one Butler has the most personal fight with. But no he gets taken out by Butler in 30 seconds, apologises for his actions, and dies after a redemptive act to help Banning, which totally and unforgiveably contradicts his deep hatred of the American way not 20 minutes earlier in the film. I guess he just couldn't resist the Butler charm.
Another weak point of this film is Banning's love interest. After the opening scene we fast forward 18 months to see Banning has a neglected-but-still-important girlfriend/fiance/wife? She doesn't contribute anything significant to the story, and yet we get 5 scenes fousing on her. One where we establish she lives with Banning and is romantically attached to him, three where we see her at work as a doctor in the ER, presumably in a hospital close enough to be the emergency centre for the White House casualties. And the last one as she rode out with the ambulance to receive the wounded president, where she stares into Banning's war-torn body but with a facial expression of redemption, restoration, but says and does nothing. What was the point? Was there a message or is it symbolic of something? Not clear!
None of these scenes show how she helps Banning do anything. She doesn't even fulfill an emotional function because Banning sees her more as an obligation, a distraction, a personification of normality which he can't embrace. She doesn't get kidnapped, shot, killed or even know about Banning's journey into the terrorists' lair, so we don't see her crying or worried for her man in the cinematic cliche sense. You could write out her character and the story would be equally good (or bad). At least the president's wife had the excuse of needing to die to cause the distancing between the president and Banning. The use of the "Noooooo!" cliche when she died kind of killed the mood for me as well...moving on!
The relationship between Banning and the son is okay, and I characterized this relationship as love because we are supposed to see Banning as a godfather to the president's son (Connor is his name I believe). I mean they do pull Chekov's gun pretty early in the film with Banning testing the kid's intricate knowledge of the White House's secret passages and hiding spots. Guess this kid is also proud to be an American living in the most American building in America.
Another glaring problem with this film, as with many Hollywood produced action films is its irreverence for their own soldiers and generals and military scientists. These are the people who protect you from the terrorists, keep enemy nations at bay and assist you when natural disasters strike, and you repay them by portraying how ineffective, stupid and stubborn they are? The concept and design of Cerebrus (the self-destruct mechanism for America's nukes) is also extremely stupid but I'll get to that in the nitpick section.
I'll admit I don't read that much into America's military history, but as far as I know most of the international wars that included America, they were on the winning side right? What twisted enjoyment does the director/writer think the audience gets from seeing its own security walls crumble? To see their weapons used against themselves? Suddenly they're not proud to be Americans! The very thing that helped Americans win America from the British was war, and after a few centuries you'd think they are pretty good at their job, but movie logic trumps reality any day!
A final note about how American this film is: the music at the beginning of the movie; well it's totally a knock off of the anthemic opening to Air Force One, another very American film with a pro-American message aimed at making Americans proud to be in America! I personally think America is more than what these films portray it to be, just as most real Americans know Australia is more than Skippy the Kangaroo and Waltzing Matilda. So I hope Hollywood would stop making these kinds of stereotyping, unoriginal and over-patriotic films, and that I should avoid them myself.