Olympus Has Fallen really wants to be Die Hard. So I think it’s reasonable that I’ll spend a bit of time today talking to you about Die Hard.
Die Hard was a great movie. Almost as soon as news of John McClane’s guerilla defence of the Nakatomi Building reached the cinemas, action filmmakers across the greater Los Angeles area started trying to duplicate its magical alchemy of wiseass and whopass. Few have succeeded.
Die Hard 2 was the only film of the ‘badass in a box’ genre to come even close. Since then the Bruce Willis outings have, while being perfectly serviceable action flicks, increasingly lost touch with what made Die Hard great.
And it isn’t only Bruce that’s tried to capture the Die Hard magic. Among others Steven Seagal (boat) Jean-Claude Van Damme (hockey stadium) Wesley Snipes (aeroplane) Dolph Lundgren (heavy metal concert) Wil Wheaton (school) and Shannon Tweed (beauty contest) (really) have all been a Badass in a Box™ at some point. And Steve Coogan‘s upcoming Alan Partridge movie promises to show us a one-man defence of North Norfolk’s premier digital radio station.
So what does Olympus Has Fallen have to add to the Badass in a Box™ canon? What does it add that’s new I mean.
Well, honestly, not a whole lot.
If you’ve seen the trailer, you’ll be aware of the basic setup. Gerard Butler is on the Presidential protection detail. A terrible accident, involving the criminally underused Ashley Judd, occurs and Gerard is banished to the wastelands of the Treasury.
Eighteen months later a colossal attack on the White House takes place, and Gerard just happens to make it into the West Wing to start taking down miscellaneous stooges while the authorities rage impotently outside.
If you’ve seen a Badass in a Box™ flick before, and it’s scarcely credible that you haven’t, there are at least 30 of them, you’ll spot the villain long before he reveals himself. Indeed, you can predict large chunks of Olympus Has Fallen while you’re still in the popcorn queue.
That’s not to say it isn’t enjoyable. Once you’re through the setup you’ve seen in the trailer and a slightly saggy few minutes while Gerard gets bored with his new desk job Olympus Has Fallen offers some thrilling action beats. Admittedly most of them are shamelessly lifted from the original Die Hard flick, but if you’re going to steal, steal from the best – right?
For me, the real flaw in Olympus Has Fallen is Gerard’s support network. He has none. Although the headline description of Die Hard is ‘one guy against the world’ that original film has a number of beautifully-written and well-cast supporting roles.
There’s Twinkie Cop, Ballsy Wife, Oily Cocaine Executive, Annoying Breakfast Club Cop, they’re all great. And they have pivotal parts to play in the Die Hard story. And that’s before we even get to Alan Rickman’s fabulous turn as Savile Row Mastermind.
The writers of Olympus Has Fallen don’t give us that. There’s a degree of byplay between Butler’s Secret Service Badass and the POTUS (Aaron Eckhart) and the First Kid (Finley Jacobsen), but really no-one gets to do anything that isn’t reacting to Butler.
I really like Angela Bassett. She’s a fine actor, she has immense charisma and it doesn’t exactly hurt that she’s pleasing to look at. Here she just gets to say “Oh my God” into a speakerphone every now and then. Morgan Freeman, who by popular acclaim is more presidential than any real President, isn’t significantly better used.
Robert Forster takes a brief stab at the Annoying Breakfast Club Cop angle, but you can tell his heart’s not really in it.
The villains are one-note bad guys with slightly unclear aims. The are notionally North Koreans, but the script slightly fudges whether they are actual North Korean special forces or that ‘rogue element’ beloved of Glasnost-era Bond movies. Their ultimate plan, when revealed, at least does offer some genuine peril. It’s a bit daft though.
Naturally the villains couldn’t gain access to the White House without the help of an Inside Man. You’ll probably spot who it is early on but you’re a smarter moviegoer than me if you can work out why he turns traitor. He gives a speech explaining it at one point but I just heard “Bankers…Financial Crisis…blah blah blah” and little cartoon tweety birds started circling my head.
Students of my oeuvre will doubtless be aware of my theories on the semiotics of weapons in action movies. How the hero, when given the option, will always favour a handgun over the sub machine gun or assault weapon.
Gerard Butler gives us a master class in that methodology here. Despite having his pick of weapons scavenged from downed Korean stooges he favours (usually) the pistol, (surprisingly often) the knife and (on one memorable occasion) the marble bust of a former President over the big gun.
The action, when it happens, is fast and brutal. There are some kickass WWF moves. The initial assault on the White House is a spectacular 13 minutes of savage precision. There’s good CGI, which you can’t see, and bad CGI, which is at least brief.
Towards the end of the film there’s something of a plot hole where Gerard no longer needs to be the lone Badass in a Box™ but he is anyway. Indeed for the last five or ten minutes director Antoine Fuqua lets the film jog to a halt rather than sprint to a climax.
If this movie popped up on TV I’d watch it to (more or less) the end. It’s an efficient, alarmingly violent action movie that may start a little slowly and end a little slowly but has a rugged heart of sheer muscle. As a cinema outing? I’m not so sure. There are better films on release this month. And we haven’t even mentioned White House Down yet.
As Olympus Has Fallen is set in the heart of American politics I’ll conclude by paraphrasing former Democratic vice-presidential candidate Senator Lloyd Bentsen
“Olympus Has Fallen, I’ve seen Die Hard. I loved Die Hard. Die Hard was a favourite of mine. Olympus Has Fallen, you’re no Die Hard.”