The MovieOlympus Has Fallen is the latest in a long line of Die Hard style action movies, pitting a lone hero against the superior numbers and more elaborate firepower of an entrenched villain. The hero in question is U.S. Secret Service agent Mike Banning who, in the film’s prologue, saves the President’s life but pays a dreadful price to do so. 18 months later, he’s out of the Service and on duty at his desk job when a diversionary attack leaves the White House (“Olympus” in Secret Service parlance) open to a ground assault. Sensing further danger, Banning races to 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue and gets caught up in the fray, ending up as the sole friendly alive inside the White House. The President has already been sequestered in the emergency bunker, only to find that the enemy – North Korean terrorists bent on reigniting the war with the South, and more besides -– is within as well as without. And so Banning begins a race against time to secure the safety of the President before the Koreans can trigger Cerberus, a nuclear failsafe that, if subverted, could destroy the entire United States.
Gerry Butler produces and stars, bringing his trademark mid-Atlantic accent and burly physicality to the role of Banning, a man who takes a certain pride in his deadly work. Aaron Eckhart is President Asher, who doesn’t get a great deal to do but he looks suitably stoic and/or anguished when called upon. Morgan Freeman rounds off the headliners as the Speaker Of The House, who gets promoted to the top job in Asher’s absence and Freeman effectively conveys the character's 'weight of the world' weariness. The supporting cast has a surprising amount of strength in depth; Ashley Judd is the President’s ill-fated wife, and Oscar-winner Melissa Leo gets a turn as the feisty Secretary Of Defence. Angela Bassett does her authoritative thing as the head of the Secret Service. Radha Mitchell is on spouse duties as Banning’s other half, with Cole Hauser getting yet another outing as a short-lived spook (see also: A Good Day To Die Hard). Dylan McDermott is the shady ex-agent Forbes, and Rick Yune is adequately menacing as Kang, the North Korean operative who's hellbent on destroying the U.S. (familiar ground for Yune, having played a similar North Korean nutter in Die Another Day). Robert Forster is the last of the ensemble, slightly miscast as the bullish General Clegg.
The motives of the main players are clear enough but it’s tough to actually like a lot of these people, and there’s not much nuance to Creighton Rothenberger & Katrin Benedikt’s script, giving us supporting characters who either see things in black and white (like the gung-ho general) or whose motives are not at all clear (like the inside man who justifies his betrayal with a half-cooked rant against big business). The politics of the bad guys stretch no further than old-fashioned Cold War rhetoric, although the film is littered with imagery that vividly recalls 9/11, like planes crashing into urban areas, iconic landmarks crumbling into dust as people run for their lives and so forth. Even the spectre of Islamist beheading videos is invoked at one point, further highlighting how the film has dressed up its worn-out story in altogether more modern clothing.
I’ll mention Die Hard again because the similarities are impossible to ignore, not so much regarding the story set up (which is clichéd enough already, borrowing heavily from the likes of Air Force One) but in the execution of the film itself. There’s the scene where Banning encounters a double-dealing enemy, foul-mouthed banter with the main antagonist over a radio, the trigger-happy authority figure who instigates a counterattack that gets repelled with ease, plus there's a similar attempt to mix glib one-liners with brutal violence. Olympus doesn’t get the balance quite right, preferring bloody assaults over humourous asides, so when the quips do come they feel a bit clunky, like they’re there to tick boxes rather than as an organic part of the story.
However, the film generates just enough pace and excitement so that you don't have too much time to dwell on how utterly derivative it is, not least because the action is staged with plenty of energy and efficiency. Antoine Fuqua’s direction is somewhat anonymous, without any sort of flashy camera moves or other visual signatures, but Shakey-Cam is kept to a minimum and it hasn’t been hacked up in the edit suite with quick cuts, meaning that the carnage is intelligible from the first gunshot to the last. The various hand-to-hand scraps are brief but enjoyable, showing more of a bent towards MMA with some nice takedowns (indeed, fight staging seems to be moving away from the strictly Oriental arts that were so popular a decade ago).
Olympus is R rated which came as something of a surprise when it was released earlier this year, because the studios' preference for the dollar-friendly PG-13 rating had all but killed off adult action movies as theatrical entertainment (Stallone's tongue-in-cheek Expendables franchise aside). Such films don’t necessarily need strong language and bloody violence, but when you’re dealing with the violent overthrow of the seat of the Western world it helps to add to the urgency of the piece (though Robert Forster could do with cursing lessons, as his delivery doesn’t ring true). So folks get shot, stabbed, beaten, blown up and even crushed by the falling point of the Washington Monument.
Those bits don’t get drawn out for the sake of it as Fuqua knows when to move on, stopping short of turning the movie into an exploitation pic, though there is one uncomfortable scene - necessarily so - involving Melissa Leo's character. There’s a bit of CG augmentation here and there for the blood, but there’s still a pleasing high-impact quality to the combat scenes in general. Unfortunately the larger scale effects sequences use a lot more CG, as do most of the exteriors (the film having been shot in Louisiana as opposed to Washington, D.C.) and they never quite convince, being devoid of the depth and realism of the best CG work and betraying the comparatively low budget of the film.
Action junkies will have a strong sense of deja vu when watching Olympus Has Fallen, and if you can't tolerate steely-jawed US patriotism being shoved in your face every few minutes then you won't last long, but I really got into it. What holds it together is the complete lack of irony (aside from casting a Scot as an All American Hero™) and the ability of all those involved to play it as straight as they can, combined with the hard-hitting battle scenes that let you see what’s actually happening. As a result, the movie is shot through with that red, white and blue sense of self-belief which is typical of American popular culture. It drew me in against my better judgement, and I was literally on the edge of my seat as the inevitable countdown climax played out. Shaving a little bit off of the running time would’ve given the movie even more momentum (ditching the cheesy prologue would've been ideal) but it’s still a satisfying effort that took a shade under $100 million dollars domestically, which is a great turnout for an R rated action flick.
The DiscThis region B locked Blu-ray starts with no forced trailers and boots straight to the main menu after the obligatory studio logo. Strangely, there is no pop-up menu on this disc, nor are there any alternate language tracks or subtitles other than English Hard of Hearing. [CORRECTION: 26/08/13] Actually, there IS a pop-up menu on this BD, styled to look like a 24-hour news ticker, which is a nice little touch. I place the blame for missing it solely on my Sony BDP-S790, which has since been returned to its vendor for another unrelated problem.
The movie was shot Super 35 and finished on a 2K DI. Framed at approximately 2.40 widescreen, this 1080p AVC encode occasionally looks a touch fragile but it holds together during the busiest sequences. The colour is consistently rendered and looks a bit more subdued than one might expect, given the modern trend for the garish teal/orange combo. Skin tones stop short of the perma-tanned glow that pervades movies today and the gouts of blood have a deep red hue. Once the action starts it’s all neon-lit bunkers and smoky corridors and whatnot, and it almost looks monochromatic at times. Detail is mostly excellent with very little grain and no undue sharpening whatsoever, though there are a few smudgy and/or noisy shots sprinkled throughout.
Black levels vary, running the gamut from deep, detail-crushing darkness to a thin, grey haze, and the DI ‘windows’ used to highlight certain parts of the frame can look quite conspicuous. The biggest issue I can see is that there is some noticeable banding in certain scenes. It’s blatantly obvious on the Lionsgate logo that precedes the film and it immediately rears its ugly head again on the walls surrounding Banning and Asher as they have their sparring match at the beginning of the movie. It reoccurs sporadically but what’s odd is that it doesn’t plague the film from start to finish, i.e. the busiest scenes are fine. It’s a small niggle in the grand scheme of things, however it takes the gloss off of what is otherwise a competent encode.
The 5.1 audio is given the regulation lossless DTS-HD Master Audio treatment. No one aspect is truly stellar, but it’s a decent mix. Dialogue can sometimes be a strain to hear, mainly because of Butler’s throaty growl of a delivery but aside from him it's fine. The forgettable music comes through loud and clear. The bass isn’t as impactful as I’d hoped, and even though the rears are full of the requisite swooping helicopters and zinging bullets when the action heats up, they’re a tad lacking in atmosphere when no-one’s shooting at anyone. Good, but not great.
The extras section consists of half a dozen bits of inconsequential fluff which reek of an EPK. Epic Ensemble is 7 minutes of Fuqua and the leading actors gushing about how great it was to work with each other. Under Surveillance: The Making Of Olympus Has Fallen is a short digest of how the movie came together, lasting for 11 minutes. Creating The Action: VFX and Design takes a 7 minute look at the scale of the extensive CG work and what was achieved practically. Grand Combat: Fighting The Terrorists pays 3 minutes of lip service to the fighting in the movie, and Deconstructing The Black Hawk Sequence takes the same amount of time to examine said sequence. Last up is a very quick and very lame Gag Reel, 2 minutes' worth.