Monday, March 25, 2013

Team America: OLYMPUS HAS FALLEN


There’s a lot of literal flag-waving going on in Olympus Has Fallen, an oppressively rah-rah, militaristic, xenophobic slab of red meat filmmaking. Its basic structure is that of a mid-90’s Die Hard rip-off with the President of the United States (Aaron Eckhart) and a few other high-ranking officials (including the Vice President) trapped in a bunker below the White House when it’s taken over by North Korean terrorists hell-bent on forcing American troops out of South Korea. Seems like they could have come up with a less complicated plan to get that point across, but a villain’s showmanship is everything in a movie like this, I suppose. The John McClane of it all is a former Secret Service agent played by Gerard Butler. He’s working a desk job down the street when 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue is attacked and overrun. Never one to flee from danger, he finagles his way into the burning building and starts picking off the bad guys one by one while trying to rescue the hostages.

Strategy is not all that applicable to anyone’s actions here. It’s like a slasher movie with the slasher as the good guy and it grows tedious awfully quick. Butler lurks around shooting down enemies, getting into bruising fistfights and torturing captives for information about their overarching plans and the identity of their leader (Rick Yune, who, after facing off with Brosnan’s Bond in 2002’s Die Another Day, seems to have suffered a diminution in the complexity of his plotting). As in McClane’s case, there’s convenient radio communication that allows taunts to flow both ways. There’s also a command center of mostly unhelpful suits down the street where Angela Bassett and Robert Forster wring their hands and hope that the nuclear launch codes are not divulged. Morgan Freeman’s there, too. As Speaker of the House, he’s the acting president and gets the biggest (unintentional) laugh of the movie when he gives a speech reassuring the public that the government remains 100 percent operational. Is that like the old joke where the guy asks the doctor if he’ll be able to play piano after the operation and is happy to hear an affirmative, since he’s never played piano before?

With films like Training Day, King Arthur, and Shooter, Antoine Fuqua has proven that he knows his way around suspense or action setpieces. Here, directing from a script by Creighton Rothenberger and Katrin Benedikt, he manages a couple, but they both come very early in the runtime are a mixed bag anyways. The first, a quick bit of business involving a limo accident, is a tight and surprising opening. The second, an extended bit of disaster moviemaking, is a jarring and upsetting sequence of collateral damage. It involves the terrorists flying a large military plane right down the National Mall, firing heavy machine guns, casually picking off pedestrians before crash-landing near the White House and serving as a signal to the enemy combatants hidden in the crowd to start the siege. (The plane also takes out a big chunk of the Washington Monument on the way down; I’ll leave you to parse the nationalist Freudian significance of that image.) While this is undeniably effective, it’s also excessive: a bombastic misappropriation of 9/11 imagery to form a jingoistic call to arms with overwrought patriotic bloodlust not too far behind.

Fuqua certainly shoots the whole sorry thing with total commitment to an increasingly ugly premise. But as it drones from one smoldering, darkly lit corridor to the next with the occasional bloody death or two, I lost any interest I may once have had. It’s not often you can say that a movie about terrorists holding the president hostage in order to detonate nuclear weapons within American borders feels like it has nothing at stake, but that’s the case here. As the bad guys’ numbers drop with regularity and Butler barely sustains a scratch and is always correct in his decisions, any sense of danger in the plot is gone. It’s all so over-the-top that it falls entirely apart into generic noise typical of the genre: terse, unfunny quips, fake news clips with carefully non-specific logos, and loud booms now and then to make sure the audience hasn’t fallen completely asleep.

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