Saturday, September 3, 2016

Olympus Has Fallen (Sony, Millennium Films, Nu Image / Millennium Films, Gerard Butler/Alan Siegel Entertainment, 2013)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2016 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

The film was Olympus Has Fallen, a 2013 production of actor Gerard Butler, who not only starred in the film but co-owned one of the production companies involved (“Gerard Butler/Alan Siegel Entertainment”) and originally called his film White House Taken but had to change it to avoid confusion with another, similarly plotted movie also released in 2013, White House Down. Directed by Antoine Fuqua (the DVD wrapper contains a sticker announcing that he made Training Day, a film I’ve never seen) from a script by Creighton Rothenberger and Katrin Benedikt — who, perhaps because they were two people, doubled the ante I’ve sometimes joked about, based on Lewis Carroll’s character who believed six impossible things before breakfast, seemed to think that between them they had to write 12 impossible things before breakfast — Olympus Has Fallen begins on a wet, snowy December night in which President Benjamin Acker (Aaron Eckhardt, a quite capable actor that never quite grasped the brass ring of stardom) is in one of four identical black SUV’s leaving the Presidential retreat at Camp David. His wife Margaret (Ashley Judd in what amounts to a cameo) is in the car with him — she’s just surprised him by having found his grandfather’s old watch and obtained it for him as a gift — when the car slides out of control and hits one of the other cars in the party. It ends up suspended over a bridge, and Secret Service agent Mike Banning (Gerard Butler, top-billed) tells the President and his wife to climb to the back of the car and get out that way to move the center of gravity away from the front, since the front end is suspended over a frozen-over lake and gravity is threatening to pitch the car off the bridge and into the lake. President Asher gets out O.K. but his wife is stuck in the car when it duly falls into the lake. Flash-forward 18 months later (we even get a Lifetime-style title indicating the passage of time) and there’s a lot more dull, boring exposition until the film’s main issue suddenly arises: a group of terrorists flying an old-fashioned propeller-driven transport plane takes out two state-of-the-art military helicopter and launches an attack on the White House. (Yeah, right.)

They manage to overwhelm the defenses and trap the President; Vice-President Charlie Rodriguez (Phil Austin); Secretary of State Ruth McMillan (Melissa Leo, who actually manages to do some interesting things with what Rothenberger and Benedikt wrote as a pretty standard damsel in distress); Admiral Nathan Hoenig (Jason Ingersoll), the head of the Joint Chiefs of Staff; and virtually all the other federal officials responsible for national security in the White House’s impregnable underground bunker. The only people left to run the government outside the bunker are Speaker of the House Allan Trumbull (Morgan Freeman, who actually gets one scene in which he’s allowed to act anger — an emotion almost totally foreign to Freeman’s usual characterizations — but other than that it’s a pretty dull role for him, he’s wasted in it and five years after the election of Barack Obama a Black President is hardly the novelty item Rothenberger and Benedikt seemed to think it was), Secret Service head Lynn Jacobs (Angela Bassett — the role was originally written for a man, and presumably a white man at that, but director Fuqua wanted to work with Bassett and so he had the character changed to a Black woman), and U.S. Army General Edward Clegg (Robert Forster, another fine actor who didn’t make it to the star rank he deserved when he was young, so here he turns up in a character part pretty obviously based on Sterling Hayden’s role in Dr. Strangelove). Fuqua and his writers keep us in suspense for about two or three reels but eventually they let us know that the attackers are led by a Korean terrorist named Kang (Rick Yune, who not surprisingly is the most charismatic actor in the film even though — or maybe especially because — he’s playing the principal bad guy) and they timed the attack to coincide with a state visit by South Korea’s prime minister to the U.S. (The prime minister ends up as collateral damage, one of the 168 people — according to an “Trivia” poster — who die during this film.) Kang has recruited two inside people to make his attack possible — which indicates he’s spent years planning and premeditating it — one in the South Korean prime minister’s security detail and one, Forbes (Dylan McDermott), in the U.S. Secret Service. Unfortunately for the terrorists, Mike Banning — who was taken off the Presidential protection detail after the First Lady died 18 months earlier in the opening scenes and relegated to the Secret Service’s other job, trying to track down counterfeiters on behalf of the U.S. Treasury — just happened to be in the White House when the terrorists struck, and he’s a typical movie superhero (even without a cape, a cool costume or a cool backstory), repeatedly able to hold off entire squads of machine gunners armed only with a pistol.

It’s the sort of movie John Wayne would be making if he were still alive and young today — it does seem as if Gerard Butler is hoping to inherit the plainclothes-superhero mantle that Wayne passed on to Clint Eastwood — first Banning manages to get the President’s son Connor (a typically obnoxious movie kid played by Finley Jacobsen) out of the White House via an air vent (Charles correctly guessed that this film would feature an escape through an air vent just minutes before it did), then he corners the terrorists and has a series of hair’s-breadth escapes, many of them by using the space between the White House’s two sets of walls (supposedly the second set was put in during the Truman administration while Truman was having the White House remodeled and himself living at the nearby Blair House) — at one point when Banning was using one of the secret entrances to the space between the two sets of walls I thought of Young Frankenstein and said in an O.K. German accent, “Put the candle back” — and he finally vanquishes the terrorists, kills Kang with a knife to his brain (can you really stab someone through the skull? If you’re a movie hero, I guess you can) and at the last minute disarms the dreaded “Cerberus,” a self-destruct code for all the U.S. ballistic missiles. Kang’s objective — one of them, anyway; it’s not clear whether he’s an agent of the North Korean government or a free-lancer who wants to take over both Koreas and reunite them under his dictatorial rule — is to turn the U.S. into a radioactive wasteland by using Cerberus to blow up all the U.S.’s ICBM’s in their silos. To do this he’s had to assemble the three parts of the code to activate Cerberus, which are held by the President, the Secretary of State and the head of the Joint Chiefs, and in the film’s action climax Agent Banning has to code in the code to disarm Cerberus. Director Jacobs is reading him the code when we get the film’s one genuinely funny bit of comic relief: she’s giving it to him digit by digit and reaches this character, #, which she reads as “hashtag.” Banning has no idea what that means and someone else in the situation room yells out, “Shift-3!,” and after keying in the rest of the stop-code Banning manages to stop the detonation of every U.S. nuclear missile with just three seconds to spare.

Along the way acting president Trumbull, who’s otherwise depicted as a total wimp — when Kang says he demands that the U.S. pull the Seventh Fleet out of the waters of the Sea of Japan (an “Goofs” contributor noted that no Korean, North or South, would refer to this body of water as the “Sea of Japan” — they call it the “East Sea”) and withdraw its army from the demilitarized zone between the two Koreas, Trumbull immediately agrees, against the advice of General Ripper, oops, I mean Clegg, that this will start a world war involving Russia and China and therefore one in which nuclear weapons will no doubt be used (I think a lot of the target audiences for this movie are the sorts of people who think Obama is a foreign-policy weakling and hate him both for that and for being Black) — orders a team of Navy SEAL’s to counterattack the White House, despite Banning’s attempt to warn him (Banning is depicted as being in radio contact with Trumbull and the officials outside the bunker throughout the incident, which really stretches credibility even for a movie like this — wouldn’t real-life terrorists be able to track down his signal and thereby locate him?) that the bad guys have access to a Hydra anti-aircraft defense system, have installed it on the White House and therefore can (and do) shoot down all six helicopters before they get anywhere near their target. Olympus Has Fallen isn’t a bad movie if you can take the sheer preposterousness, as well as the machismo, of it all — the second half, once the exposition is taken care of, is gripping action — but one can’t help but think that more could be done with a story like this than Fuqua, Rothenberger and Benedikt managed, even though the film was successful enough at the box office it even spawned a sequel, London Has Fallen (which when I first saw it on supermarket DVD racks I thought, “Ah, an instant documentary on Britain leaving the European Union” — though in fact London was just about the only part of England to vote against the “Brexit”!).