Released: 18 March 2013
Director: Antoine Fuqua
Distributor: Millennium Films
Budget: $70 million
Stars: Gerard Butler, Aaron Eckhart, Rick Yune, Angela Bassett, Dylan McDermott, and Morgan Freeman
When a North Korean terrorist group led by Kang Yeonsak (Yune) storms the White House and takes President Benjamin Asher (Eckhart) and his cabinet hostage, their only hope is one man, Mike Banning (Butler), a former Secret Service agent forced to wage a one man rescue mission on the nation’s capital building.
Ever since the commercial success of Die Hard (McTiernan, 1988), a number of knock-offs have permeated cinema that are, essentially, “Die Hard…but on a…”. We’ve seen Die Hard on a boat, on a train, in a plane, in a hockey stadium, in a skyscraper, and all kinds of variants but, in 2013, we got two movies that followed the basic theme of “Die Hard…but in the White House!” The more financially successful of these two movies was, of course, Olympus Has Fallen, which began life as a spec script and became the first in a whole franchise of action movies that really keeps the spirit of Die Hard alive in a time when such movies are rarely seen in cinema.
Unlike many films featuring the President, Olympus Has Fallen opens with Asher not in some dull press conference but in a boxing ring with Mike; the entire opening sequence is a pretty effective, if overly dramatic and elaborate, way of showing the close relationship Mike has with the President and his family, especially Asher’s son, Connor (Finley Jacobsen). Mike is on friendly terms with Asher, calling him “Ben” when in private but being all business and a consummate professional when it comes to his safety. Meticulous and detail-orientated, Mike has even (conveniently for the film’s plot) taught Connor the value of always being aware of his surroundings and exits. Of course, no good action movie protagonist is any good without some significant trauma or drama and Mike’s is a doozie: while escorting the Asher’s to a fundraiser, they had a blowout and, though Mike was able to save the President, he couldn’t save his wife, Margaret (Ashley Judd).
When we pick up with Mike eighteen months later, he’s a shell of his former self; now working at the Treasury Department, he’s doing the best he can to carry on and provide for his wife, Leah (Radha Mitchell), but is clearly affected by the guilt and consequences of his actions since he’s easily distracted by political news. Thankfully, the two have a very close and adorable relationship: they’re not at odds with each other or arguing, Mike’s not a drunk or abusive, and Leah is both sympathetic and supportive of him and just wants them to adjust to and accept the new normal. She doesn’t really get much to do beyond being Mike’s rock but we do get to see her doing good work at the hospital, staying busy and being supportive even in the face of the insurmountable odds stacked against Mike. Mike, however, is frustrated with his position; he maintains contact with his former director, Lynne Jacobs (Bassett), and wants back in but, while she reassures him that no one, not even Asher, blames Mike for what happened, she urges him to take some time to grieve and reflect on the accident and emphasises that Asher hasn’t given himself that time and is thus unable to see Mike every day without being reminded about what happened.
Although it’s obvious that things are very different not just for Mike but for Asher and Connor as well, everyone has been able to carry on as though it’s business as usual because of their commitments and, as a result, the President and his staff invite South Korean Prime Minister Lee Tae-Woo (Keong Sim) to the White House to discuss the threat of invasion from North Korean forces. However, shortly after Tao-Woo’s arrival, the White House comes under attack from the Koreans for United Freedom (KUF), a North Korean terrorist group led by Kang Yeonsak, who infiltrates the White House (which is given the completely subtle codename of “Olympus”, hence the title of the film) as one of Tao-Woo’s aides. This delivers quite an impactful sequence in which a gunship rains fire upon Washington, D.C. and the White House itself. Despite the White House’s impressive (and, frankly, unprecedented) array of weaponry (including anti-aircraft guns and hundreds of armed forces), the attack is nothing short of a massacre and the White House is captured with gratuitous use of violence and the destruction of iconic American landmarks.
Despite being held hostage, with no idea of the whereabouts or safety of his son, Asher remains defiant in the face of Kang’s threat, ordering the remnants of the government and military not to negotiate. Kang, however, is a cold, ruthless, and remorseless individual who takes the White House with an aggressive and efficient operation, setting up heavy weapons and numerous armed men throughout the White House to fortify his position. He is also more than happy to threaten, torture, and kill Asher’s aides for security codes to America’s “Cerberus” weapon, mercilessly beating Secretary of Defense Ruth McMillan (Melissa Leo) to within an inch of her life and outright executing Tae-Woo. To spare lives, Asher permits his aides to divulge their codes since he remains steadfast that he will never reveal his own code, which only drives Kang to further extreme methods.
Kang and his cohorts are reprehensible, merciless terrorists who gun down countless members of the White House security team in an unprecedented ground assault, completely taking everyone by surprise, and of which Mike ends up being, again, the sole survivor inside the now ravaged White House. Of course, it turns out that they were aided in their efforts by Dave Forbes (McDermott), a former Secret Service agent and trusted friend of Mike’s who sells out his country after losing his way. Forbes is positioned as Mike’s dark reflection, a corruption of the ideals he fights so hard to uphold, and their inevitable showdown is framed in a way to present Mike as fighting someone as trained as capable as he. Of course, Mike is able to overcome this challenge with grit and determination and, having delivered a clean, effective, mortal blow, offers Forbes the chance at redemption before he dies.
An interesting technique Olympus Has Fallen employs is not just the usual onscreen information like locations and times and such but also little titles for key characters in the Presidential office so we know who they are and what their position is. I’m not entirely sure I really need this context (it’s enough for me to see them conversing with the President to know that they’re important) but it’s certainly unique.
Of course, not being an American, having no interest in politics, and not really being that patriotic, many of these aspects are wasted on me. However, the action in Olympus Has Fallen is suitably loud and over the top and the initial assault against the White House is scary in its potential, if a little undermined by the slightly dodgy CGI (most notably seen in the film’s various blood effects). For me, none of this detracts from the sequence or the action, though, since such scenes are full of frenetic cuts, fast-paced action, and numerous explosions and brutal kills that all sell the sudden violence of the campaign more than anything else.
Once Mike enters the White House as the last man standing, the film truly reveals its Die Hard roots as Mike becomes a John McClane (Bruce Willis) figure: a lone man with few resources fighting impossible odds. Mike, however, as a former Army Ranger and Secret Service Agent, is arguably a lot better trained and equipped than McClane yet, as efficient and capable as he is, he’s still just one man and positioned as a vulnerable, desperate character. Mike’s adaptability comes not just from wise cracks (and he is extremely snarky when he needs to be) and desperate innovation but from his knowledge of the White House and governmental protocols, which he uses to his advantage to arm himself, find and rescue Connor, and launch a pre-meditated counterattack using the hidden passageways to avoid and take out Kang’s men one at a time.
Of course, it’s not all action and excitement in Olympus Has Fallen; much of the film’s side plot revolves around the remaining governmental body, headed up by Speaker of the House Allan Trumbull (Freeman) who, along with military aides and other advisors, desperately try to hold the country together, debate Kang’s demands, and try to find a way to resolve the situation. Interestingly, I found that the film kind of suggests Trumbull as a red herring, someone perhaps in league with Kang in order to usurp Asher as the President, but..c’mon, it’s Morgan Freeman so of course he’s the cool-headed commander-in-chief who helps co-ordinate Mike’s efforts within the White House. Thankfully, there’s only a momentary debate about Mike’s credentials and capabilities so, unlike McClane, he’s not entirely alone in the White House and has a degree of support, if nothing else. However, his warnings to as General Edward Clegg, (Robert Forster) regarding their attempts to retake the White House of course fall on deaf ears because those not stuck in the middle of the shitstorm always have to make uninformed and impulsive decisions so our “Everyman” hero can shine even brighter and have another chance to perform a daring attempt to save lives.
Despite his earlier obvious feelings of guilt and uselessness, Mike reacts without thinking as soon as he spots the incoming attack on the White House, goes out of his way to try and save lives, and immediately slips right back into his scrupulous training to become a one man army. Mike is an efficient, hard-hitting combatant; there’s no prolonged fight scenes here, just quick, hard, well-timed strikes. He’s also, it turns out, an equally ruthless and dangerous individual; when questioning Kang’s men, he doesn’t hesitate to murder one with one quick, vicious stab and torture information out of the other. Whereas McClane struggled with most of the terrorists he was placed up against, Mike only really finds himself facing a challenge when fighting Forbes and in the final showdown with Kang. Still, despite Forbes’ deception and taking him by surprise, Mike is quickly able to adapt and put him down. By the time he reaches Kang, Mike is fatigued and wounded and thus on the backfoot at first, especially in the face of Kang’s superior martial arts ability. However, Mike represents America’s much-touted ideals of peace, freedom, and democracy and this only bolsters his indomitable will, allowing him to make good on his promise to “stick his knife through [Kang’s] brain” and win the day for America.
Olympus Has Fallen is an extremely intense and engaging action film; it walks a fine, blurry line between being massively over the top and being just a little too serious for its own good, never quite falling on one side or the other. This results in a decent amount of tension and excitement; Mike is an extremely capable, well-trained, and meticulous individual and yet, thanks to Butler’s rugged charisma and down-to-earth appeal, is still a vulnerable, flawed, and relatable character. He’s fighting an uphill battle and striking with a blunt efficiency but is still human, getting more and more fatigued and battered up as the film goes on. Kang, meanwhile, is a ruthless and nigh-emotionless sadist, the kind of villain who truly believes that the ends justify such vicious means, and Yune brings a quiet, despicable magnetism to the role that is fully paid off in his violent end. Strong supporting performances by the always-fantastic Morgan Freedom and Aaron Eckhart help bolster the film’s appeal and legitimacy and, despite some dodgy CGI in the opening moments, the film stays very true to the gritty, desperate spirit of films like Die Hard and is, in my opinion, a worthy successor to that series.
What did you think to Olympus Has Fallen? Did you find Mike Banning, and Gerard Butler, a compelling action hero? How did you find the execution of the film’s premise and the performances within? Did you find it an enjoyable romp or were you, perhaps, unimpressed with the film’s weaker aspects and arguably derivative nature? How do you think it compares to Die Hard and similar films and which of Die Hard’s many knock-offs is your favourite? Whatever you think about Olympus Has Fallen, leave a message below and come back next Sunday for my review of the sequel!