Friday, March 22, 2013

In Theaters: OLYMPUS HAS FALLEN (2013)

(US - 2013)

Directed by Antoine Fuqua.  Written by Creighton Rothenberger and Katrin Benedikt.  Cast: Gerard Butler, Aaron Eckhart, Morgan Freeman, Angela Bassett, Robert Forster, Rick Yune, Melissa Leo, Dylan McDermott, Radha Mitchell, Ashley Judd, Cole Hauser, Finley Jacobsen, Keong Sim, Malana Lea, Phil Austin, Sean O'Bryan. (R, 120 mins)

When the trailer for OLYMPUS HAS FALLEN started making the rounds a couple of months ago, with its seemingly intentionally bad visual effects and dialogue like "I'm the best hope you've got!," "America does not negotiate with terrorists!" and "They've opened the gates of Hell!," one could be forgiven for assuming that a bunch of big-name actors agreed to take part in a fake trailer mocking big-budget, overblown, jingoistic, flag-waving, "America! Fuck Yeah!", porn-for-red-states action explosion epics.  But no...OLYMPUS HAS FALLEN is a real movie with real actors.  And what's most surprising, other than it's not nearly as terrible as that trailer made it look, is that the actors lured by fat paychecks actually seem to be taking it seriously, as if this is the first film of its kind and they're really doing something groundbreaking.  The outrageously overqualified cast is pretty much all this has going for it.  They're the reason this thing cost $80 million and still looks like a shot-in-South Africa, straight-to-video Frank Zagarino flick directed by Sam Firstenberg in 1996.  Avi Lerner and his Cannon cover band Millennium/Nu Image may be able to somehow pull $80 million out of their asses several times a year despite most of their films going straight-to-DVD and the two EXPENDABLES films being their only recent hits, but true to their Golan-Globus heritage, they haven't been able to shed their B-movie skin despite Herculean efforts to do so.  Nowhere is this more apparent than in their continued employment of the Bulgarian visual effects outfit Worldwide FX, whose trademark digital splatter and SyFy Channel-level CGI is showcased here in all its chintzy, D-grade glory.  Rushed into production in true Cannon fashion to beat Roland Emmerich's upcoming and very similar WHITE HOUSE DOWN into theaters, OLYMPUS HAS FALLEN is fast-moving and brainlessly entertaining, but the extended CGI destruction of Washington, D.C. (itself CGI'd even before the mayhem, as the film was shot in Louisiana) that's displayed here would've looked subpar in the mid-1990s.  No matter how many A-listers they manage to reel in, Millennium/Nu Image will never be a major player with these kinds of shit-ass visual effects and shoddy, blurry greenscreen work.

Secret Service agent Mike Banning (Gerard Butler, who also co-produced) has been wallowing in guilt at his desk job at the Treasury office. 18 months earlier, he was the chief agent on the security detail of President Benjamin Asher (Aaron Eckhart), when a car accident during a snowstorm on a bridge along the icy road to Camp David resulted in Banning saving the President's life but not that of the First Lady (Ashley Judd), whose seatbelt was jammed as the limo plummeted into the cold waters below.  The widower Commander-in-Chief removed Banning from his detail, not because he blamed him, but because his presence would be a constant reminder of the First Lady's tragic death to himself and his young son Connor (Finley Jacobsen).  While staring at the computer monitor at his desk after another day of feeling sorry for himself, Banning gets a shot at redemption when North Korean terrorists attack D.C. from the air, killing hundreds of citizens and toppling the Washington Monument in a sequence that would be a stunner were the visuals not so cheap and tacky.  The President is hosting a South Korean delegation, allowing them into the underground PEOC bunker when he and his staff are moved there. Of course, the delegation has been infiltrated by the same group of terrorists, led by the nefarious Kang (Rick Yung).  Kang wants the US military to pull out of the DMZ between North and South Korea and he's prepared to kill President Asher, Vice-President Charlie Rodriguez (Phil Austin), and Secretary of Defense Ruth McMillan (Melissa Leo) before turning America into a post-nuke wasteland if his demands aren't met.

Kang's army overtakes the half-destroyed White House, wiping out the entire security detail, led by Banning's buddy Roma (Cole Hauser), a character who was doomed to die, as he's played by Cole Hauser.  Banning takes out a number of Kang's men before infiltrating what's left of the White House, which apparently doesn't change any passwords or security codes over an 18-month period since Banning still has full access to everything in the Oval Office.  He gets in contact with the Pentagon, where House Speaker Trumbull (Morgan Freeman) is the acting President, providing intel to him and his advisors, Secret Service chief Jacobs (Angela Bassett) and General Clegg (Robert Forster).  Once he locates Connor--codename "Sparkplug"--and gets him to safety through an air vent (Banning sure knows a lot of easy, unsecured ways in and out of the White House), he goes to work eliminating Kang and his cohorts--including former Secret Service agent-turned-hired gun traitor Forbes (Dylan McDermott), who helped coordinate the infiltration--and rescuing the President.

If you think this sounds a lot like DIE HARD, well, you're right.  Several scenes are restaged almost in their entirety, including a botched chopper rescue attempt that's shot in such a similar fashion that you almost expect Robert Davi and Grand L. Bush to show up as Agents Johnson and Johnson.  And of course, even though he's "the best hope you've got," someone--in this case, Clegg--has to be the requisite "Deputy Chief of Police Dwayne T. Robinson" of the film and doubt Banning and his intentions at every turn, if only to have someone else pipe up about what a dedicated badass he is.  And there's also the tough guy wisecrackery, but when Banning tells Kang "Let's play a few rounds of Fuck Off...you're it!," it doesn't quite have the same iconic punch as "Yippee-ki-yay, motherfucker!"  Butler is OK in Hollywood's latest attempt to make Gerard Butler happen, though he isn't really exerting himself here in what amounts to a two-hour Bruce Willis impression.  He does have a nice rapport in his scenes with young Jacobsen.  Eckhart mainly clenches his teeth and yells "Fuck you!" a lot, while the hammy overacting is left to Leo, who gets kicked and beaten to a pulp not once but twice (after the first, she asks President Asher, with blood dripping from her mouth, "How's my hair?"), and in the film's most unintentionally hilarious moment, is dragged down a hallway by her hands to her presumed execution while kicking and shrieking "I pledge allegiance to the flag!  Of the United States of aaaaagggghhh!"

Freeman brings surprising humanity and gravitas to the Speaker of the House, a man who disagrees with the President but puts politics aside and demonstates humility and nervousness over the role he wasn't expecting to be playing when he woke up that morning.  Considering the stock, one-dimensional characters in Creighton Rothenberger and Katrin Benedikt's script, I'm sure this level of complexity was brought to the table by Freeman himself, and his scenes have some unexpected credibility to them.  I particularly liked his initial anxiety when confronted with the situation and how he's stammering and indecisive and rapidly losing the confidence of everyone in the room when he dodges questions and instead asks someone for a cup of coffee, "with double cream and three Sweet & Lows...and put it in a real cup, not one of those styrofoam things," then closes his eyes, and something snaps in him and he's ready to take charge.  It's just a little moment of real, human feeling in an otherwise dumb movie, and Freeman, pro that he is, totally sells it when all he really needed to do was show up.

Directed by the underrated Antoine Fuqua, who fares much better with more grounded and gritty films like TRAINING DAY and the criminally underappreciated BROOKLYN'S FINEST, the shockingly cheap-looking OLYMPUS HAS FALLEN isn't quite the laugh-riot you'd expect from the trailer, and if it weren't for the horrible CGI and the fact that the President's high-tech bunker looks like it was quickly thrown together in Avi Lerner's basement, it would almost certainly play better.  As it is, it's the kind of movie where an aerial shot featuring the Capitol Building and the Washington Monument includes a caption that reads "Washington, D.C."  It's a forgettable but stupidly entertaining enough way to kill two hours, and for what it's worth, it's miles ahead of the abysmal A GOOD DAY TO DIE HARD.  But really, it's long past the time for Worldwide FX to install a software update or close up shop because their work just isn't cutting it anymore.  Say what you will about Roland Emmerich, but he's a guy who knows how to convincingly destroy Washington D.C., and his WHITE HOUSE DOWN (with President Jamie Foxx's life in the hands of Secret Service agent Channing Tatum.  No, really) will undoubtedly make OLYMPUS HAS FALLEN look even more amateurish than it already does.

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