One of my pet peeves is when people oversimplify foreign affairs. The health of the United States has become so intertwined with the success and failure of many foreign regimes. For that reason alone, the plot of Olympus Has Fallen should have driven me absolutely mad.
It brings the North Koreans, our villain du jour for Semper Fi military 'splodey fests, into a scheme that reeks of simplicity, with confounding reasoning. An ex-terrorist from N. Korea (Rick Yune) picks up his old guerrilla-assault ways with hopes to stop the never-ending tension between his countries northern and southern halves. This is accomplished by, of course, taking the President of the United States hostage and assassinating the South Korean Prime Minister on live feed. These are simple, violent actions groping toward complex solutions.
But I didn't think about that while watching Olympus Has Fallen. I was actually too engrossed in what was going on to wonder how kidnapping the President would suddenly lift sanctions on N. Korea. More curious to this intrigue though, is that the reason I was so interested in the events of Olympus Has Fallen is because it is one of the meanest, nastiest, and most surprisingly subversive action films of the year.
Prior to the centerpiece of Olympus, the invasion and subsequent one-man assault on said invasion by Gerard Butler, the tone is set via a dark prologue. In the prologue the President (Aaron Eckhart) and his wife (Ashley Judd) are in a car accident. Butler plays the Secret Service Agent who tries to save them both but can only get to the President, leaving them both alive to see the First Lady plummet to her death.
A few weird details on this intro. First, this is a character-defining moment for the Agent, not the President. This way when Butler has to look longingly at the White House after losing his job we know, deep inside, he just wants to back within arms reach of the President. It's almost a joke in the way films that contract Butler seem to go out of their way to overcompensate for his inability to act by placing him in situations to generate the most sympathy. Killing off the First Lady so dramatically is possibly the furthest this device has been pushed, and the slow-motion screams of "Noooooo" and "Moooooom" that follow Ms. Lane's descent off-screen had me giggling furiously.
What starts with the potential to use Butler's grunty action physique for something genuinely subversive is, at first, just a prelude for more nastiness. It's not enough that the First Lady dies from the fall, it's also clear that her neck snaps and is gushing blood from large shards of glass embedded into it. For all the shots fired against the good and bad folks of the film, the innocents really take it hard. Melissa Leo plays the Secretary of Defense and is beaten mercilessly in a scene that goes on for a good three minutes before stopping to let her spit out blood. There's no visceral thrill in the moment, just a lot of pain.
This puts the film seemingly at odds with its Die Hard in the White House aspirations. Butler quips and kills his way through dozens of Koreans while they glower ominously and beat up women in the President's fortified safety bunker. He struggles, once again, with providing a decent performance for the film outside of his physicality and settles for taking on an accent of indeterminable origin that comes and goes with the scene (I think Chicago, feel free to add your own guess). But these elements, which at very casual glance could seem like "mistakes", make the film way more interesting.
Olympus Has Fallen is caught up in the spirit of its antagonist so much that it loses sympathy with everyone. Given director Antoine Fuqua's absolute control of the surroundings, especially with his harsh environment-focused photography, this is part of the point. The small-level, personal nastiness of the opening decisions gives way to large-scale conflicts with no possible good outcome. Success for the Americans means that hundreds of thousands of starving N. Koreans will continue to die because of harsh sanctions, and failure means that America gets taken off the global stage and stops meddling in affairs it's not welcome in. The global environment is for the worse no matter who wins, all the while we are supposed to cheer on the linguistically-confused grunt who is pointed in the direction of folks that need killing.
Fuqua's unique action thriller has tentatively earned this year's Sucker Punch award for a film I'm more excited to talk to others about than watch again. Interestingly, Olympus also shares Snyder's disdain for traditional heroic figures. While I don't expect many to come to the same conclusions, Olympus is worth watching no matter how you approach the film. If you just want some well-crafted action scenes there are plenty to behold. If you want to see how the stereotypical action hero is becoming a lumbering, dangerous, over-simplified dinosaur of a response to foreign affairs then you can do no better than Olympus this year.
Directed by Antoine Fuqua.
Screenplay written by Creighton Rothenberger and Katrin Benedikt.
Starring Gerard Butler, Aaron Eckhart, and Morgan Freeman.