RECAP: Olympus Has Fallen
Olympus Has Fallen (2013): Antoine Fuqua
2013 saw the release of two movies in which the White House falls under siege. This is…one of them.
Aaron Eckhart plays a gravelly voiced tough guy in a compromised position in several of his movies. This is…one of them.
Antoine Fuqua, who directed only four movies from 2005-2012, put out as many movies since. This is…one of them.
ONE SENTENCE PLOT SUMMARY: The White House is under enemy hands, and (say it ominously) there’s only one man for the job.
Mike Banning (Gerard Butler) is a Secret Service agent. He’s the best. The movie starts at Camp David, in a snowstorm. President Ben Asher is about to visit a billionaire’s Christmas party. The presidential motorcade leaves Camp David at night during a snowstorm.
Banning escorts the First Child, Connor, a sharp student of the White House. Banning taught him, and quizzes him in the car, about all the White House exits and how much time is needed to evacuate it in an emergency.
Slight issue with the roads–they’re icy, because it’s winter. And the drivers forgot an important fact of life–Bridge Ices Before Road. So when an unidentified flying object strikes the lead vehicle, it and others slide around the bridge, and even off it, including the president’s limousine.
Several Secret Service agents struggle to weigh down the rear of the limo as it teeters on the edge. Banning grapples with Asher. Both he and the First Lady are stuck under their seat belts. Banning promises he will take care of the First Lady as he cuts Asher’s belt free. He pulls out the squirming president. The car immediately falls and crashes onto the ice below, killing the First Lady.
That’s how Banning lost his job with the Secret Service. Whether he quit or was fired we don’t know. Later, as the White House falls under terrorist attack, Banning watches it unfold from his desk at the Treasury. Lucky for him, as all the Secret Service die. I mean they all die, every last one of them.
As Banning advances toward and through the White House, we are treated to his top-line skill set. Pushing papers had not one centimeter dulled his edges. For example, on the White House lawn Banning kills at least six heavily armed guys, flanking the group to the White House front steps.
Banning brings out the hand-to-hand skills inside the White House. When the guy monitoring the security feeds checks on a noise, he’s surprised to find Banning disarming him and stabbing him in the chest a half-dozen times.
This is a move Banning uses more times. He loves braining guys, doing so at least twice. And of course his gun skills are second-to-none. Banning can shoot guys through walls, gun behind him, while running away. And not get shot. He’s practically a wizard.
While we might believe any one of these fights, together they constitute a gross oversight. These are highly trained, organized, and armed terrorists. Except for the terrorists who blew themselves up on the helicopter, former Secret Service agent Mike Banning kills every single terrorist. The terrorists kill every single Secret Service agent and soldier guarding the White House. This would be like the Golden State Warriors beating the Cleveland Cavaliers 100 to 99, and Steph Curry scored all 100 points.
But what about Banning the man? He has a woman named Leah. Wife, girlfriend, I don’t know. She’s upset at Banning because he refused to attend the a friend’s July 4th cookout. He wakes up on July 5th saying, “I’m sorry.” But he tunes her out later that morning when she regales him of the party’s events. He’s more interested in the buildup of tension on the Korean peninsula.
Banning never wavers in his fight to save his former boss, but that still gives him the chance to call his lady and soothe her fears. It’s never clear if she knew he was in the White House, but he doesn’t tell her. (She waits for him after movie’s end, though, so she probably guessed.)
He can fall through two floors and survive. But his relationship with Spark Plug, Connor Asher, is his most endearing quality. Asher and Connor have fewer scenes together than Banning and Connor. Banning is the kid’s true father, emotionally speaking, as he always has the time to save his life and not promise ice cream when he can’t deliver.
We don’t learn who the villain is for about a third of the movie, long after Olympus has fallen, and after the murder of Prime Minister Lee. Who is he? That’s the best trick he pulls off.
Kang, played by Rick Yune from Die Another Day, is one of the world’s most wanted terrorists, never before photographed until he appears on a monitor inside the Presidential Emergency Operations Center. How did the most wanted terrorist in East Asia make it inside the president’s secure bunker?
Kang infiltrated the South Korean government long ago. US intelligence knew Kang existed, but not what he looked like, and as the NSA guy said, they never thought to look inside South Korea’s own government. (How did they know Kang was Kang? He’s a guy whose face is unknown to everyone, but when he appears on the monitors in the Pentagon’s crisis room, they’re all like, “Yeah, it’s Kang.”)
I suspected Kang was the bad guy the moment I saw him, because he was also the bad guy in Die Another Day. Turns out he was the bad guy. Movie characters should watch more movies for research.
The characters in the Pentagon didn’t know just how bad Kang was until he pops up on their security monitor. Before, Kang wore glasses, Clark Kent-style, which disguised his evil power. Kang looks into the monitor and slowly, menacingly, removes the frames, gripping both temples and slowly drawing them down his face. When he did that, all the characters were like, “Oh my God! Look how he took off those glasses!!!! He’s so evil! We’re screwed!!!!!”
Turns out he is pretty evil. He shot the South Korean PM and the US Vice President for no reason other than to indicate he is evil. He tortures an Admiral and the Secretary of Defense for the Cerberus launch codes, the former by sticking a knife to his throat and the latter by brutally beating her.
Only when Asher orders them to give up the codes do they give them up. And they recall them straight away. These eight-character alphanumerics are not easy to remember, but both Admiral Hoenig and Defense Secretary McMillan rattle them off like a list of their children’s names. What if they forgot the codes? It’s not like they use them every day like a soup recipe or the cable channels. But they give them up anyway. Such is Kang’s power.
The attack on the White House shines in a movie not dull, but dim. The attack takes much time to unfold and is multifaceted. Though it’s never discussed, the terrorists must all have known they would die for their cause. If that’s true, a better plan could not be made for seizing the White House.
A terrorist gunship flies over DC toward the White House. It peppers the grounds with huge bullets. Banning, spotting the plane from his office at the Treasury, follows all this long enough to reach the fence enclosing the grounds, all the time begging people to move away.
Then Banning sees two guys with backpacks approach the fence. “Get the fuck down,” he shouts, but they don’t because they are about to suicide bomb the fence. Banning shoots one guy dead but the other guy explodes.
Some of the tourists turn out to be terrorists. They pull bandanas over their faces and walk through the smoking gap onto the White House lawn. One reveals a bazooka and he shoots a guardhouse. It explodes, and the shockwave shatters the windshields of the parked cars. That’s a detail you rarely see in a movie.
The terrorist force is comprised of about 30 guys, walking en masse, carrying automatics both full and semi. They hold their triggers. The children will be searching for casings at next year’s Easter Egg roll.
Kang cooked up a great plan, because he probably knew that the Secret Service agents and military personnel would just pour out of the front door and stand still while shooting at the enemy.
Apparently the guys in suits missed target practice. All the practices. Because they don’t shoot a single bad guy. The first American to hit a terrorist is a dog. Banning, who is weaving through the trees on the terrorist flanks, kills a few guys.
Next, two garbage trucks show up at the White House fence. They park on opposite ends of the fence and blow their wheels out. We don’t know what they are there for until a little later, when a door opens on the sides and two 50-cal machine guns open up. One gun is aimed at the White House door and the other at the mass of police cars nearby.
I’ve never been to Secret Service training, but I don’t think they advise agents to run directly into machine gun fire. Several agents do exactly that. Yeah, they got shot. Other agents decide to shut the front door. That’s their big move–shut the door.
By now Banning has crossed the lawn and hunkered down behind a concrete wall at the bottom of the stairs. He looks around him and sees white walls and dozens of dead men in suits. It’s like Black Friday 1929 out there.
There’s literally three guys left alive on the American side, and Banning’s one of them. He spots an RPG and leads the other two inside. He’s the first in, but the other two get shot. One of them dies with a sweet bullet shimmy. The other guy stands in the doorway and turns to shoot back. He dies, of course.
So Mike Banning, Treasury guard, ran across the entire White House lawn while every single one of his former compatriots dies. He’s a skilled dude.
Inside the White House the action dies down, mostly because everyone is dead. OK, not everyone. An agent who uses a fallen comrade as a shield. He survives for one reason, to radio to the Pentagon that “Olympus has fallen.” Then says “Fuck you” while crawling on the ground and shooting a terrorist in the chest.
Most of the effects in this movie were for Washington DC. The movie cost $70 million, and I hate to say it, but it showed. Not shooting on site, in Washington, hindered verisimilitude. The planes flying appear as fake as the city they fly over.
A diverse team of powerful politicians and generals guide Banning through the White House to the president’s bunker while also trying to handcuff his progress.
Morgan Freeman plays Speaker of the House Allan Trumbull, a man graciously allowed to drop in on the Asher’s high level meeting with Prime Minister Lee in an earlier scene. Asher let Trumbull in so we would be familiar with him when he becomes acting president.
Freeman often portrays a wise old man, and has made his living on such roles like God and assorted humans. You’d think “Acting President” would be a role perfect for him. Not so. Trumbull was a man overwhelmed by events, an interesting role for the actor.
When he arrives in the Pentagon Situation Room sponsored by Wolf Blitzer, Trumbull learns a lot of things at once, like, “You’re president now, dude. Also, the real president, he’s being held hostage beneath the White House. And it’s a Bond villain who’s got him.” “But I have racquetball tomorrow,” Trumbull says. “Cancel it,” they say.
Maybe the dialogue wasn’t exactly that. When the people at the table tell him the deal, he turns to yell at someone off camera, asking for a complex coffee order, and not one in a styrofoam cup.
The people look askance at him, as if he’s not up to task. Then Trumbull orders nuclear sites secured, a phone call with the North Korean leader followed by calls to the Heads of State of the other four permanent members of the UN Security Council.
Off to a good start, but the long night drags on Trumbull. He offers advice like, “Let’s see if we can get the president out.” Yes, Trumbull. That’s the idea most people are having. Later he orders Banning to not let Kang leave the White House with the president. Yeesh.
Trumbull gives in to Kang’s demands and orders the withdrawal of the Seventh Fleet and the 28,500 US troops stationed along the DMZ, undermining the US motto, “We Don’t Negotiate With Terrorists.” Recall the original US flag, the one with the snake. That was the motto on it. I’m sure of it.
Trumbull’s commands leave the two Koreas on the brink of war, and at 4:25am, the camera tracks toward a Trumbull who appears to have a head that lies heaviest. Maybe he was just sad about missing that racquetball game.
The saddest part about Trumbull? I don’t think he ever got his coffee.
Angela Bassett plays Banning’s former Secret Service boss Lynn Jacobs. She and Banning still catch up, even 18 months after he left the Service. Bassett doesn’t have much to do, but hers is the toughest, steeliest exterior in the cast. She’s the person who convinces the Pentagon group to trust Banning and let him help work the situation.
We only know one henchman by name, the scheming Forbes (Dylan McDermott). McDermott was a good cast for the role, because he doesn’t look trustworthy. It’s all in the dark features and unshaven face. Guys gotta be clean-shaven to earn our trust.
Forbes agrees to the attack for the slimmest of reasons–he thinks Asher’s a jerk, and he never even voted for him. Forbes believes Asher “sold out” America, thus making him one of its biggest enemies. He believes, by his choices in friends, that removing the Seventh Fleet from Korean waters and aiding a terrorist strike on the White House will make America a safer nation. It’s as crazy as it sounds.
Forbes’s fighting skills are still pretty good. Kang dispatches Forbes to trick Banning into surrendering, in one of the movie’s many Die Hard parallels. The two meet near a dining room. Forbes pretends he’s one of the good guys, and that he just barely got away, exactly as Gruber did when he met McClane near the roof of the Nakatomi Plaza.
Forbes even lights up a smoke, which might be an homage to that Die Hard scene, but I think that gives the film a little too much credit. Then Forbes blows it by telling Banning Kang’s name. Banning questions how he would know that, and then they start fighting in the dining room.
All of Kang’s other henchmen are Korean guys. They don’t speak English and wear street clothes and bandanas to protect their faces from the tear gas they shoot across the lawn. They are terrifically disciplined and skilled fighters. Only a superman like Mike Banning can outdo them, as he does time after time.
Wisely, the terrorists don’t stop at shooting the agents. After breaching the White House, they systematically approach each prone body and shoot their heads. No one fakes dead on their watch.
Kang also brought a woman with him, the hacker who enters the Cerberus codes and breaches the security systems and tracks flee movements.
Banning dispatches a few guys with hand-to-hand combat. He surprises one goon in the security room and stabs him a half-dozen times in the chest, rapid fire style, pop-pop-pop. I imagine stabbing a person in the chest would be hard. There’s a lot of stuff that a blade can catch on. Banning has no trouble.
Banning and Forbes have a good, but fast, fight scene. I love a fight where the two combatants grip each other and start grrrrr-ing like they have history’s most compacted stool and have to get it out RIGHT NOW. Both former Secret Service agents do this, until Forbes pulls a knife and swipes at the hero. No worries, the camera deftly captures Banning disarming Forbes before he eventually kills him.
Trumbull orders the Seventh Fleet to leave Korean waters. This news is so dire that a British news channel reports it. War is imminent and the Cerberus will activate with only one more code.
Just then, Kang learns the helicopter he demanded has arrived. He orders his men and the hostages to dress in all black and hoods. They march to the chopper chained together. The chopper takes off, and then explodes.
For unknown reasons, the folks in the Pentagon are sure Asher was on the chopper. They aren’t at first, but saying it more makes them more sure. No one comes in and says, “Hey, we have no idea who those people were.”
Someone should have, because Asher and Kang are both still alive. And Kang has broken the final code. “The wages of sin is death,” Kang says. “You better keep that in mind,” Asher says.
The plan was to detonate the nukes in their bunkers. “Now too, America shall know suffering and famine.” He just wanted to make the country into a wasteland. “He just opened the gates of hell,” Trumbull says.
Banning finds the elevator to the PEOC as Kang and Asher, both still alive, are fleeing through the hole blown in the wall. The door opens and he caps two guys before going into a knee slide toward a third guy about to shoot a gun.
Kang and Asher grapple for a handgun, and Kang shoots Asher in the gut. Kang turns out to be one of the best fighters in the movie. He uses dual knives to slash Banning twice and even roundhouse kicks him.
Banning loses the upper hand against Kang before gaining it again and flipping him over into a headlock, grabbing a knife, and braining Kang, just like he said he would.
But wait, he has to deactivate Cerberus. The Pentagon team reads him the code. Banning enters it quickly, stumbling only on “hashtag,” because no one told him about Twitter yet. Jacobs, helpfully, chimes in with “Shift-3,” and the world is saved. With a hashtag.
Banning is a funny dude. He’s got as many quips as guns and knives. General Clegg orders Banning to stand down. “News flash asshole,” Banning says, “I don’t work for you.”
General Clegg, mucking up the works, doesn’t want to tell Banning about Cerberus. Banning counters with, “Right now I think I have the proverbial need to fucking know.” They told him.
Banning brings the only comedy to the movie, which perhaps takes itself too seriously.
Most of Olympus was filmed in Louisiana. The crew built a facade of the White House on an open field, leaning on an effects team from Denmark to etch the remainder of the White House and the DC skyline in the background.
The movie takes place in the capital area, mostly inside the ruined White House and also the Pentagon. The scenes are too effects-driven to matter much.
So many Die Hard parallels. If you’re making an action film, though, Die Hard is a great movie to mimic. Let’s go through the questionnaire.
Is your film set mostly inside a highly secure building that is systematically damaged? Yes.
Do your protagonist and antagonist taunt each other over handheld radios? They do.
Do specially trained operatives try to blast their way into the building from helicopters? Hey, yeah, some do.
Does a member of the enemy team pretend to be a good guy? One does. Should I be worried?
Does the antagonist, during the course of the film, learn the identity of the wife of the only person in the building trying to kill him? You gotta be kidding me, that happens!
And does the main character not work for any of the people trying to oversee the operation, thus giving him a chance to call such people “assholes”? You got me. I am unmasked. I originally titled this movie Die Hard at the White House.
Now that we covered that, let’s move on. Fuqua uses patriotism as a crutch in the movie. It’s not merely President Ben Asher or Our American Values under attack, it is America Itself.
The gunship that flies over the White House could have strafed its target and flown away. Instead the pilots open fire on civilians patronizing the National Mall. The plane reaches the White House and, as well as killing the snipers on the roof, peppers the American flag flying over it.
Not only the terrorists attack us. The movie takes place on July 5th, one day after Washington’s huge July 4th celebrations. One shot, from ground level, shows the wheels of the South Korean Prime Minister’s motorcade driving over the detritus remaining from the night before. The movie seems to say that even the democratic, techno-centric South Korea disrespects American values.
The terrorists, upon seizing the White House, aren’t content with turning the flag into Swiss cheese. They pull it down and throw it away. Point made. In a final bit of flag allegiance, the Secretary of Defense, as she’s dragged from the PEOC to the helicopter, recites the Pledge of Allegiance.
Just so we know that the White House, and America, is secure, at movie’s end someone strings up a new flag.
It’s impossible to avoid such commentary with a plot like Olympus‘s. The terrorist gunship clips the Washington Monument, sending huge chunks of it down onto the Aunt Eunices and Uncle Freds of the world. The portraits of Lincoln, Jefferson, Kennedy, and Truman are seen. Banning crushes a goon’s skull with a bust of Lincoln, in a moment screaming for a joke, but one that went without.
It would be real easy to Mickey-Rooney-from-Breakfast-at-Tiffany’s the Korean terrorists, to make light of them or make them seem lesser terrorists. No character ever underestimates them, and knowing the coordination and precision of their attack, how could anyone?
- A shot of a newscast about the attack shows a headline crawl on the bottom of the screen. It says, “Terrorist Attack the White House.” I want the misspelling to be intentional, but I don’t think it was.
- For the first 40 minutes of the movie I thought the kid’s name was Colin, not Connor.
Summary (34/68): 50%
Copying Die Hard is a good way to make a good movie. It’s like copying Steph Curry’s jump shot. You aren’t Steph Curry, nor Die Hard, but at least you’re trying.
Olympus Has Fallen tries. The effects dragged otherwise good action and acting. Eckhart is fierce as president, if not believable. My wife came in and said, “That’s the president? He’s way too hot.”
Butler succeeds in playing a guy who knows how to get the job done, but it is only a job.