REVIEW: Olympus Has Fallen (2013)

A good day to copy Die Hard. 

Olympus Has Fallen is the best Die Hard movie of 2013. Sure, it’s not a canonical Die Hard film, but it’s Die Hard in tone, spirit and structure, and it’s better than the official fifth instalment in the Bruce Willis-starring franchise, not to mention it feels a lot closer to the series than A Good Day to Die Hard. Those expecting another of director Antoine Fuqua’s riveting character dramas may not like Olympus Has Fallen, but action fans will find much to enjoy here; it’s a generous bounty of R-rated gunfights, wit, explosions and machismo. It has its faults and it pales in comparison to the original Die Hard, but it’s nevertheless a solid, old-school action-thriller that benefits from the fine directorial hand of Fuqua. More than enough works here to ensure it’s the first must-see actioner of 2013.

A former Special Ops soldier, Mike Banning (Gerard Butler) is a trusted Secret Service Agent to President Asher (Aaron Eckhart), but he falls from grace when an unfortunate car accident leaves the First Lady dead. Months later, Banning has removed himself from the Secret Service, working a mundane office job in the Treasury Department. When a delegation from South Korea arrives at the White House for a diplomatic visit, Washington suddenly falls under attack from both the sky and the ground, resulting in the deaths of innocent civilians as well as the President’s entire security detail. Asher and his entourage are taken hostage by terrorist Kang (Rick Yune), who holds them in the President’s underground bunker. But there’s a “fly in the ointment, a monkey in the wrench” in the form of Banning, who slips into the White House unnoticed. With Kang demanding that the acting President (Morgan Freeman) removes American troops from Korea, Banning is the country’s only hope.

Like 2012’s Red Dawn remake, Olympus Has Fallen features North Korean terrorists battling the United States, reinforcing that NK has become the new default international villain. Conflicts with Russia have calmed down since the 1980s and the Russians have become a viable box office audience, but North Koreans are fair game, as they aren’t a valuable market for Hollywood movies and nobody would give a fuck if they got offended. Written by first-timers Creighton Rothenberger and Katrin Benedikt, Olympus Has Fallen incorporates several Die Hard elements, including a few scenes directly lifted from the 1988 blockbuster. It’s all to nice effect, however. Under Fuqua’s direction, the picture moves at a good clip, with some witty dialogue and plenty of opportunities for exciting action set-pieces. It is pretty dumb at times, and the real-world credibility is a little on the skewiff side, but the movie never calls for an unreasonable suspension of disbelief; it’s pretty easy to accept everything here. Olympus Has Fallen is a clichéd ride but a smooth one.

On a less positive note, some of the digital effects are distractingly obvious; Olympus Has Fallen strived to evoke action films from the 80s and 90s, hence use of actual models would have been far more appropriate. Likewise, Fuqua adds contemporary cinematography to the old-school pandemonium, resulting in frenetic camerawork that sometimes spoils the fun. Nevertheless, the rest of the production is a lot more successful, particularly with Fuqua embracing the movie’s adult rating, spicing up the one-liners with profanity and giving the action scenes an extra punch. Fuqua has honed his gritty action-thriller chops for years, and he delivers the action here with tremendous intensity. Olympus Has Fallen is genuinely gripping from time to time, especially the extended skirmish depicting the takeover of the White House (an incredible sequence), and an armrest-clenching climax. It’s a B-grade movie for the most part executed with A-grade technique.

Butler has spent too long careening from one awful rom-com to the next, and he’s more alive here than he’s been in years. It’s a role that’s perfect for his capabilities, giving Butler the opportunity to make wisecracks and break necks. He’s the gruffer, more skilled version of John McClane, and his performance is far more energetic than anything Willis has done in the past decade. As the North Korean villain, Yune pretty much plays the same role he portrayed in Die Another Day, and he displays sufficient menace to make the character work. Also enjoyable is Freeman, who’s charismatic and badass, showing us exactly why every movie needs a touch of Morgan. Meanwhile, Eckhart makes for a decent President, showing a level of humanitarian decency that almost pushes the film into the realm of fantasy. Rounding out the cast is Melissa Leo as the Secretary of Defense, Radha Mitchell as Banning’s wife, and Dylan McDermott who makes a good impression as a fellow Secret Service agent.

Perhaps expectedly, Olympus Has Fallen is getting a bad rap for its pro-America stance, but that’s an empty criticism and it’s not even completely accurate. Yeah, the heroes are American, there are some slow-motion shots of American flags, and the characters deliver some jingoistic speeches, but it doesn’t feel like propaganda as the film also depicts Secret Service agents and D.C. cops behaving like morons and dying as a result. So, yes, the movie is by-the-numbers and the script is not airtight, but it’s rare to get an action-packed adrenaline rush this proficiently-assembled. It’s a total blast, packing in enough escapist action and enjoyable onscreen carnage to make it an entertaining experience.

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