Friday, March 22, 2013

Olympus Has Fallen: If only it were so...

Olympus Has Fallen (2013) • View trailer 
1.5 stars. Rating: R, for strong violence and plenty of profanity
By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 3.22.13

An “exhortation to tweet,” handed to patrons who attended Tuesday evening’s preview screening of this film, asked if we all were ready for a “heart-pounding, nonstop, action-packed thrill ride?”

Hey, you bet; I’m always up for that much entertainment.

Once a suicide bomber blows a hole through the protective fence that surrounds the
White House, terrorists begin to pour through the gap. Seeing his slim chance,
Banning (Gerard Butler) follows quietly from the rear, hoping to pick off any stragglers.
Hey ... it could work!
But having now seen the film, I’m still waiting.

Olympus Has Fallen isn’t a thrill ride; it’s a thoroughly unpleasant, mean-spirited, jingoistic slice of propaganda disguised as a mainstream movie. It’s also insufferably and unforgivably stupid, laced with characters who spout laughably trite dialogue while behaving, for the most part, like cowardly morons.

If our heads of state truly responded like the idiots depicted here in Creighton Rothenberger and Katrin Benedikt’s offensively brainless script, we’d deserve to be invaded by terrorists.

Attempting to position this bomb as a “thrill ride” also implies at least a certain degree of fun, and you’ll find none of that here. What you will find, under Antoine Fuqua’s hammer-handed direction, is a first act that lovingly depicts the mass slaughter of hundreds, if not thousands, with most victims gorily shredded by high-powered gunfire. The bloodbath goes on and on and on and on. Long past the point of necessity.

Then, for good measure — and to rev up our patriotic fury, donchaknow — we watch the Washington Monument destroyed in a manner uncomfortably similar to the 9/11 shattering of the twin towers. And then Fuqua lays waste to the White House.

Uh-huh. Jolly good fun.

This is the sort of turgid melodrama that forces an actor of Morgan Freeman’s stature — playing the Speaker of the House of Representatives, fergawdsake — to intone the immortal line, “They’ve opened up the gates of hell!” To a melodramatic crescendo from Trevor Morris’ bombastic score, of course.

I’d dismiss this hokey nonsense as a latter-day descendant of 1970s disaster flicks, such as Earthquake and The Towering Inferno, were it not for the nasty political subtext. Otherwise, though, the genre clichés are consistent: Any bit player granted a line of dialogue here — just enough to fix him or her in our minds — is guaranteed to go the way of Star Trek red-shirts. Gratuitously, I might add.

Our hero is Mike Banning (Gerard Butler), once a star Secret Service agent in charge of protecting President Benjamin Asher (Aaron Eckhart), now assigned to desk duty in the Treasury Department, in the wake of events in a rather cruel prologue. That’s typical of the overkill approach Rothenberger and Benedikt take to all elements of their script: no need for credibility or reasonable psychological subtlety, when a sledgehammer will do.

Anyway, things have been heating up on the Korean Peninsula — a rather unsettling bit of real-world serendipity that this film’s financial backers probably regard as “good publicity” — and so President Asher has agreed to a meeting with the South Korean prime minister. Ah, but unknown to all concerned, the prime minister’s entourage is laced with North Korean terrorist infiltrators under deep, deep cover.

Meanwhile, a slow, lumbering AC130 transport plane — which probably couldn't outrun a toddler on a tricycle, and would have been blown out of the sky long before it got within 50 miles of land — quite improbably invades D.C. airspace. This interloper quickly dispatches the two insignificant jet fighters that obligingly swing close enough to be destroyed; it then circles and strafes the White House grounds and surrounding streets. Suicide bombers and weaponized garbage trucks simultaneously clear a path up to the White House’s front door, at which point 40 terrorist commandos charge in.

Secret Service agents hustle the president into the fortified sub-basement command bunker, with Asher insisting that the South Korean prime minister and his staff be allowed to come along. (Ah ... not likely.) At which point things go pear-shaped down there, as well, when those “polite” staff members haul out guns (!!) and kill lotsa folks, as the megalomaniacal Kang (Rick Yune) leers with satisfaction.

(And here I thought James Bond took care of Yune, back in 2002’s Die Another Day. Which, come to think of it, also involved bad doings in North Korea.)

Aside from President Asher, Kang’s high-profile prisoners include Vice President Charlie Rodriguez (Phil Austin) and Secretary of Defense Ruth McMillan (Melissa Leo). This group has been hand-picked to include all three individuals with access codes to a last-ditch computer program dubbed Cerebus, the details of which Kang begins to demand from each, one by one.

Actually, very little threat proves necessary, since Asher’s such a wimp that he orders each person to surrender his code, insisting that — as the holder of the final third — he’ll never talk.

I’m sorry, but what?!?!

The appropriate response, at this moment, is for each person to spit in Kang’s eye and say nothing. Any reasonably credible script demands that reaction. If gruesome death follows, so be it. If other people are threatened with dismemberment — or worse — that’s the way it goes. Hey, it comes with the job; the idea is to stand up to terrorist threats, not cave the moment somebody gets kicked around a bit.

I know that; you readers know that; and let me assure you, Tuesday’s preview audience knew it, as well. One could not miss the disgusted rumble that erupted after the second capitulation.

Elsewhere, in the still secure War Room, Trumbull has been granted presidential authority, where he’s ordered — by Kang — to withdraw the Seventh Fleet and all ground troops from the Korean Peninsula. And, naturally, because this is such a dumb script, Trumbull actually wrestles with this demand, rather than — all together, class — spitting in Kang’s eye (well, at the monitor screen, anyway) and cheerfully telling him to do his worst.

While Trumbull weighs his options, he also gets into shouting matches with the hawkish Gen. Edward Clegg (Robert Forster), who’s both stupid and insubordinate, while Secret Service Director Lynn Jacobs (Angela Bassett) attempts to calm these troubled waters. Jacobs has reason for optimism, because gung-ho Banning has managed to infiltrate what’s left of the White House, without being noticed by Kang and his minions.

Hey, I don’t doubt that a slick and suspenseful script could be written around the scenario of holding our president hostage; we’ve already seen far superior results in similar thrillers such as 1997’s Air Force One. And, indeed, we’ll get another shot at this new film’s premise in a few months, when Sony releases the copycat White House Down, with Channing Tatum filling Butler’s role.

(Yes, it’s another case of Hollywood suits reading each other’s e-mail, and then playing chicken with each other: just like 1998, when Armageddon and Deep Impact came out on top of each other.)

But only talentless hack writers make their bad guys (Kang) seem brilliant solely because the forces of U.S. virtue (Asher, Trumbull, Clegg) are so stupid. Thank God for Leo’s spirited performance as the secretary of defense; at least she’s got some balls. When another character wonders aloud how Eckhart’s Asher ever got elected, I have to agree with the sentiment; it’s like Spiro Agnew or Dan Quayle — or Sarah Palin — has been granted command of the free world. And control of the red buttons.

Butler certainly is persuasive as an action hero, even if his blend of luck and battlefield skills make him less a human being and more an avatar of John Rambo. This much, at least, is familiar territory ... and yes, it is cathartic to watch Banning prowl the darkened White House hallways, seeking fresh North Korean terrorists to execute. (I guess we shouldn’t be surprised by Banning’s stupendous awesomeness, since Butler is one of the film’s 13 producers.)

Finley Jacobsen makes a strong impression as Asher’s plucky and resourceful young son, Connor; too bad this numb-nuts script doesn’t find a better way to use this character. Radha Mitchell expresses the necessary spousal concern as Banning’s wife, while Dylan McDermott is appropriately crisp and cool and one of Banning’s colleagues. Malana Lea is striking, without saying much, as Kang’s pet computer hacker.

Production designer Derek R. Hill deserves considerable credit for recreating the White House and surrounding D.C. monuments, and then blowing everything to bits, and a veritable army of art department techs and special effects wizards certainly kept busy. No doubt about it: A lot of money was thrown onto the screen. Too bad the end result is so unpalatable ... up to and including a final shot of the good ol’ American flag, which punctuates a concluding nationalistic speech that drew audible snickers Tuesday evening.

I should mention, just in passing, that this film’s U.S. distributor, FilmDistrict, has been taking increasingly public heat for insisting that all journalists sign a “confidentiality agreement” promising not to reveal any “plot points, twists or character developments and/or any other information from or related to the film,” prior to the day before national release. Yep, I received and signed the pledge: no real problem, since I wouldn’t have published these words before today anyway.

But I can’t help feeling, having now seen Olympus Has Fallen, that FilmDistrict knew bloody well that it had a stinker on its hands, and wanted to take all possible measures — including the confidentiality agreement’s laughably vague threat of “injunctive relief,” should its terms be violated — to maximize the chance of a strong opening weekend.

Well, good luck with that. I have a feeling people are gonna jeer this reprehensible pile of trash for months to come.

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