Review: Olympus Has Fallen (2013)

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Directed by – Antoine Fuqua
Written by – Creighton Rothenberger & Katrin Benedikt
Starring – Gerard Butler, Aaron Eckhart, Morgan Freeman, Angela Bassett, Rick Yune, Dylan McDermott, Finley Jacobsen & Melissa Leo

The thesaurus and the dictionary have both been plundered, yet still there aren’t enough words in the English language that can be called upon to help convey to you the sheer ghastliness of Olympus Has Fallen. As someone with a great deal of shameless admiration for the genre I put it to you that this might well be the worst action film I’ve ever seen which – when you consider just how many sub-80s, Commando-esque romps I’ve sat through in my time – is quite an impressive accolade…

If there was a prize for most unoriginal film of the year, this miserable dollop of cinematic diarrhoea would surely win the trophy. Even White House Down, which was released in June (this hit our cinema screens like a vicious bout of the Clap in March) and had practically the same story, is a minor masterpiece compared to Olympus Has Fallen. Never in my 22 years on this Earth have I seen a film quite so unashamedly blinded by American patriotism and exceptionalism – a mantra whose hymn sheets are constantly used to paper over its canyon-esque plotholes and complete lack of characterisation – yet one that is also so utterly, monumentally and catastrophically boring.

The plot revolves around an attack on the White House (codename “Olympus”) which sees the President (Eckhart; The Dark Knight, The Rum Diary) taken hostage in his bunker by a Korean dissident (Yune; The Fast and the Furious, Die Another Day) who wants to orchestrate the reunification of his homeland. Just two things stand in his way – the Speaker of the House of Representatives (Freeman; The Shawshank Redemption, Se7en) with whom he is negotiating, and a secret service agent who was once on the Presidential Detail, Mr Mike Banning (Butler; Law Abiding Citizen, 300), but has since moved to the Treasury. What follows this initial set-up is a series of events so devoid of originality, so CGI-polished to the point of cartoon and so dull to the point of me almost slipping into a welcome coma that by the end I genuinely (and I do mean genuinely…) wanted to terrorists to win, if only to shake up this knackered old formula.

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Now, I’m a fair and reasonable man, so let’s start with what was good about this film. Melissa Leo (Prisoners, Oblivion) was hilarious as Secretary of Defence Ruth McMillan and, like all the best films, Olympus Has Fallen is made up of images that move on a screen.

Right, now that that’s out of the way… practically everything about this film is bad. It’s not “so bad it’s good”, nor is it “let down by X, Y and Z”, it’s just plain bad. Most of its issues (of which there are many) boil down to the fact that it’s just so stubbornly po-faced. White House Down might have been awful but at least it knew how to have fun. Alas, you’ll get no such luck with Olympus Has Fallen. Despite its ridiculous plot it takes itself unbearably seriously, to the point of crushing tedium. Fuqua (Shooter, Training Day) seems to be under the unjustified delusion that his film has some artistic merit, or perhaps that it is an allegory rich in political imagery that has something profound to say about the situation in Korea…

The plot isn’t just restricted to the hostage situation though. Oh no, on top of that we also get a laughable attempt to shoehorn in a political feud and a family drama. The scenes in the war room, which are meant to be sober and collected, are unintentionally hilarious while the apparent emotional heart of the tale (the President’s wife is dead and his son is in danger, oh boo-hoo, give me a break) is so trite and cliché that even a hack like Michael Bay might baulk at it. I don’t know if all of this is meant to make us care for these people (spoiler alert: it doesn’t…) but, whatever the purpose, it just serves to make a terrible film even worse.

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However, all of this fades into the background when compared to the film’s chronic lack of peril. For a film so full of gunfights and explosions, not once did I ever feel like anything exciting was about to happen. There are two reasons for this; firstly, Banning is about as far from an “everyman” character as you can get. He is far too skilled for his own good and, as such, you never feel that he’s in over his head. He dispatches the countless villains without a second thought, he disarms a nuclear device without breaking a sweat and he’s generally just a total dickhead. Secondly, and much more jarringly, the action looks so false that it’s impossible to engage with. Practically every action sequence is computer generated and it really does show. The film takes on an inauthentic, video-game quality that is truly ugly. Try as they did to polish this steaming turd, the result of such a reliance on CGI is that the film’s total lack of peril even more obvious.

The performances, on a similar note, are about as authentic as the visuals. Butler has all the charisma of a corpse while Eckhart fumbles through the script like a man suffering from a rather urgent bout of constipation. Freeman phones it in on one of those mobiles from the 1980s while Yune hams it up to eleven without a single hint of irony. It’s clear that they’re all a bit embarrassed by the whole thing (with the exception of Butler, who tries so hard to make it work yet fails so miserably to do so) and I just don’t blame them. Besides, it’s not as though any of them had any opportunity to explore their character’s personalities or backgrounds. Heck, the characters are so one-dimensional that they’re all introduced with on-screen annotations, just so we can at least attempt to remember their names.

I still have a few releases left to watch but I think it’s safe to say that, for now, Olympus Has Fallen is the worst film of 2013. It’s rare to find a film without a single redeeming quality (I’m not counting Melissa Leo because her screen time is so minimal) but Olympus Has Fallen fits the bill pretty nicely. In fact, it’s so pitifully bad that I’m tempted to go back and give White House Down a better rating…

½

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