Arts movie review

Olympus: Disappointing to its genre

A generous — but unappetizing — serving of blood, guts, and action

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Angela Bassett and Morgan Freeman in Olympus Has Fallen.
Phillip V. Caruso
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Aaron Eckhart and Ashley Judd in Olympus Has Fallen.
Phillip V. Caruso


Olympus Has Fallen

Directed by Antoine Fuqua

Starring Gerard Butler, Aaron Eckhart, Morgan Freeman

Rated R

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With spring break around the corner, many of you may be wondering whether there are any good movies to catch. Featured prominently in recent advertisements is Olympus Has Fallen, so you may be tempted to give it a try.

But this is a movie for a niche audience, and you should consider whether you belong to it before coughing up the ten bucks and setting aside the two hours to see it.

Here are a few rules of thumb. You may not want to see this movie if a) you don’t look forward to watching human brains blown out by point-blank shots, over and over again, b) you are not enthusiastic about watching a person being interrogated through the enhancement of knife stabs and then having his throat cut in a single blow, over and over again, or c) if you are less than thrilled by the prospect of watching dozens of people killed by high-power rifles and machine guns, with their blood spraying into the nearby walls and furniture.

You may want to watch this movie if you a) see the world through the black and white, good-guys versus bad-guys lens, b) want to get your annual dosage of patriotism-driven ass-kicking in a single sitting, or c) prefer action over plot and explicit violence over clever twists.

Even within its own subgenre, that of terrorist vs. agent action movie, this one is pretty shallow. Although clearly a few IQ points above the first “G.I. Joe” flick (and which isn’t), it is a whole standard deviation below Casino Royale or even Mission: Impossible 3.

There is not a single three-dimensional character in the whole movie. Aaron Eckhart, who was great in The Dark Knight, is not convincing as U.S. President Benjamin Asher; his final speech, presumably intended as deeply moving, comes across as uninspiring. Morgan Freeman, in his role as Speaker of the House, lacks the gravitas he displayed as Commander-in-Chief in Deep Impact, with the exception of a single good scene, where he shuts up an Admiral. Even Gerard Butler, who plays his character of an ex-Secret Service agent very well, with his typical manliness and wit, cannot take off due to the lack of a convincing villain.

The movie’s only truly thrilling sequence is a fifteen-minute long storming of the White House at the hand of a group of rebels. Albeit not plausible enough in hindsight, it comes across convincingly enough in real time to do the trick. The incident begins with a large military plane approaching Washington as a delegation from South Korea arrives for an official visit at the White House, and ends with the President of the United States as a hostage in his own bunker. Yes, it features tons of violence, blood sprays, firefights, blown brains, stabbings, and crashing aircraft, but the idea does tickle your brain that such an attack is believable enough, and oddly electrifying.

Before and after the storming of the White House, nevertheless, the movie feels like a sequence of action-movie clichés: the plot is largely predictable, all major twists can be seen from miles away, the characters seem to be made of cardboard, and many elements of the movie feel recycled, which left me concluding that commercial action movies have all but exhausted the genre.

Having said that, the movie has a few funny moments. It pushes the button of patriotism hard and often, which seems to cut it for some people: I never thought I would live to see a roomful of adults cheer and clap when a man stabbed another in the skull with a tactical knife. I think after you see your flag burned and shredded, the natural reaction is one of seeking revenge.

The biggest surprise for me came at the end of the movie, when I realized that the director was Antoine Fuqua, whose Training Day was powerful and original, with violence, yes, but also intellectually stimulating, a sort of psychological horror film. I remember how I felt anxiety coming over me as I watched Training Day in the theater — it left you wondering who or what you could trust, and made you wonder if the real world was as rotten as that. But in Olympus, Fuqua goes for the flag-waiving popcorn-munching lowest denominator.

Olympus borders on propaganda — a fictitious enemy is conjured up to infiltrate the White House, desecrate the flag, and torture members of the executive branch. In general, I like propaganda as a form of art, but this one smacked of stereotypes and had an air of insincerity, like the short staged propaganda film shown to the SS in Quentin Tarantino’s Inglorious Basterds. In Olympus there is a long shot of the U.S. flag falling down, swirling in the air — supposedly a symbol of a nation under siege, a nation that “will rise” to the challenge, we are told in the poster. Except that the nation didn’t have to, because the crisis was resolved by a few men with no qualms about killing.

If you are looking for a flick with execution-style killings, stabbings, and punches galore, and don’t mind a weak plot to tie it together, then go for it. Otherwise, pick a different movie.