Monday, March 25, 2013

The Cinema File #143: "Olympus Has Fallen" Review

Die Hard in the White House is such a brilliantly simple concept that I'm surprised it hasn't been utilized before. This year we're getting two takes on this same premise of the Oval Office under siege, and after just seeing the first offering Olympus Has Fallen, I'd say the upcoming White House Down has a tough act to follow. While thoroughly entertaining, by the standards of action movies its perhaps only just decent, but in a world where even John McClane, the archetypal inspiration for this film's hero has become an unwatchable parody of his former self, decent is a luxury we shouldn't dismiss so lightly.

Olympus Has Fallen is the story of a disgraced secret service agent consigned to a desk job after failing to save the president's wife from a car accident, propelled back into active duty when North Korean terrorists successfully take the White House hostage and he finds himself the only man left to stop them. I can't and won't deny that the notion of a relatively small group of terrorists raiding the most secure building on the planet in thirteen minutes is incredibly far fetched, but honestly, I also can't say its any more unbelievable than most action movies of this type. Hell, even Die Hard is pretty implausible when you think about it, and in a way that's part of the charm. If I wanted hyper realism that didn't demand I suspend my disbelief, I'd watch a documentary, but I'm pretty sure they don't make documentaries about Gerard Butler punching terrorists in the face.

For what it is, Olympus Has Fallen is a solid action thriller that takes its queues from some of the greatest examples of the genre and does its level best to pay homage to a noble ass-kicking tradition. In a way I feel like this movie is what the recent remake of Red Dawn could have been if more care had been taken to actually make it good instead of just settling for jingoistic pandering. Its fast paced, spending just enough time setting up the cliches of the troubled hero's tragic back story without getting bogged down in unnecessary pathos, and while it doesn't take too many turns that I would call unexpected or original, what it does, it does mostly right. Once the action gets going, right about the time our hero uses a bronze bust of Abraham Lincoln's head to dispatch an enemy, I was easily invested until the end, and able to forgive some of the sillier beats as part and parcel of this kind of movie.

If I can point to one major flaw that almost threatened to hamper my enjoyment of the film, it is that most of the characters, including the main protagonist, are not all that distinctive as people  beyond their role in the story. I know that sounds strange considering I just spent a whole paragraph forgiving the movie for being a by the numbers action flick, but you don't have to re-invent the wheel to give your characters a little bit of depth, or at least an interesting quirk or two. Butler's hero mostly eschews any attempt at revealing a personality outside of a few too many failed attempts at spouting off a McClane-esque one liner, and the villain's defining trait is that he's really really precise and effective at being a villain. Even the Morgan Freeman character, placed in the perfect position to provide a little ideological conflict as an acting head of state, is mostly just there to move the plot along to the next gun shot or karate chop to the neck.

That being said, I'm not going to sit here and act like the gun shots and neck centered karate chops aren't the heart and soul of this movie, and on that scale Olympus Has Fallen is a rousing success. Its hackneyed, sure, but only as much as I wanted it to be in my heart of hearts anyway. And in a time when so much of our action is sanitized in order to appeal to a mass audience uncomfortable with too much violence, this is the kind of bloody and explosive cacophony I expect for my Hard R movie going dollar. It doesn't make you think, and in some places actively encourages you not to (particularly when it comes to a completely unnecessary and unnecessarily stupid supporting villain played by Dylan McDermott), but overall, it does what its supposed to do, which is kick ass in a setting that was long over due to have some ass kicked in it. If the prospect of that is something that entices you even a little bit, definitely give this one a shot.

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