Tuesday, 23 April 2013

Olympus Has Fallen, and it can't get up

I read somewhere just the other day that it doesn't matter if you're telling a story that's already been told, because you'll bring your own voice to it, and make it different. Or, worse, there's always worse. I realise now that I like Korean movies which are made by Koreans in Korea with Koreans. American movies made from Korean source material are kind of pants, American movies directed by Koreans are kind of pants and it turns out American movies with Koreans (or more likely, whoever they could get from anywhere east of Siberia) are even more pants. Well, it's all learning.

Olympus Has Fallen seems to have that meaningless craptastic title because Roland Emmerich has an infinitely more bombastic take on the same material called White House Down; in one of the more justifiable "if you liked this, you'll love this" trailer decisions I've ever seen, the fleapit ran a trailer for that just before Olympus Has Fallen. It looks terrible in that Roland Emmerich, everything-is-made-of-explodium, way which makes his movies such a guilty pleasure for people who know they ought to have grown up by now.

Olympus has Fallen was made instead by Antoine Fuqua, who directed a movie a long time ago that got an Oscar, but has since demonstrated just how little that Oscar had to do with him. Cut him some slack here - he was on a clock, trying to get this one to the theaters before the Emmerich juggernaut rolled over it and crushed it without trace - but Fuqua's whole catalogue is pretty lacklustre; even if he'd had all the time in the world, this is likely to have felt pretty warmed over.

Plot is el simplistico, yet another of Hollywood's "let's see if we can get this all onto one post-it note" plots. Disgraced Secret Service agent must save the President when White House is captured by Korean terrorists. Oh, and nuclear armageddon. Lone man in a building against hordes of faceless foreign mooks with hostages and a master plan? Done. Done to death, by now, really. President in a bunker hundreds of feet below the White House with a nuclear time bomb ticking which will blow up the whole world? Yep, that was the climax of Salt, wasn't it? Washington destroyed by inscrutable forces America can't really understand? Honestly, I don't put my winter coat back in the wardrobe until the true signs of summer are here and someone's levelled Washington at the multiplex. Koreans as villains? Pah. Old news. it had novelty when Bond did it, but it seems like every rock Hollywood turns over these days has Kim Jung Un hiding under it. If only his dad had lived to see it; he loved the movies. Maybe a little too much.

As the movie gradually shifted gear from Gerard Butler saving the president to Gerard Butler saving the whole USA from nuclear obliteration, I was dogged by the nagging irritation I often get in these one man against armageddon movies. Why, I keep asking myself, has no-one ever filmed Stephen Hunter's little known, but plain brilliant, The Day Before Midnight? That in itself isn't a new story - the whole notion of a lone nut taking over a missile silo and holding it to ransom had been done before in Twilight's Last Gleaming - but Hunter's take on it was clever and twisty, and paired off a gung-ho military narrative on one front with a game of espionage cat and mouse on another front. It had good simple minded characters an audience could root for, a neat enough twist in the middle, and plenty of action and suspense. And pretty much the whole end game of Olympus Has Fallen could have been rejected first drafts for that novel. Hmmm, I thought to myself. Didn't Fuqua work with Hunter once? Yes, he did. Fuqua actually directed the only movie adaptation of any of Hunter's books that I know of. And yet he went ahead and made this thing instead of The Day Before Midnight? Oh well.

So, what do we get? Well, nothing makes a lick of sense; Gerard Butler gets transferred out of the White House, but 18 months later, not one password has been changed. Not one. I have to change my login every forty days…. As always, Hollywood's Washington is staffed entirely by people who can take ten seconds to weigh up letting a dozen Americans die as against enabling the invasion of a whole country full of Asiatics, and come down firmly on the "Meh, they don't live here" side of the equation, though in fairness that COULD be an accurate reflection of the truth. Shortsighted, amoral, local idiocy? Well, let's say the argument could go either way. As laid down by federal statute, every time two almost identical movies appear in blockbuster season, Morgan Freeman has to play the President in the one with the smaller budget, though in fairness he only plays the acting President this time. There is a loveable moppet, but mercifully he's rescued half way through the movie and we don't have to live through endless scenes of him being not-really-in-peril. The White House is apparently a complete pushover, despite being honeycombed with secret tunnels - or maybe because of the secret tunnels, I don't know. 

North Korea is super organised, and not just in that ludicrous high-kicking everyone-flashing-coloured-sheets-of-cardboard-in-arenas way; in movie-world, they can orchestrate hundreds of people into a coordinated assault from a dozen different directions. Also the US Air Force is epically useless, since their most modern fighters can be shot down by a lumbering cargo plane with machine guns sticking out the side. In fairness, the USAF may not have felt the need to prepare for a tactic which outlived its usefulness in 1943. Also, there's fun to be had on both sides of the gun control debate, since gun nuts can argue that America needs far more guns to deal with the peril of endless human waves of North Korean tourists, and everyone else can point out that North Korean tourists would probably have been a good deal less well armed if they'd been attacking the seat of government of a country with fewer guns than cellphones. Also, it's kind of weird that the White House has terrible air defence ex-stock but can be retro-fitted with stolen state of the art equipment in a matter of hours by half a dozen foreigners working in total darkness with no power tools. As Mr Hertz would have said, "Does the USA really suck, or are the Koreans just that good?"

Under the heading of "Hey, it's that guy!" I had no idea until now that Dylan McDermott had disappeared, but he's back, and instead of playing the romantic leads which Gerard Butler is now ruining, he's playing second banana villains. Aaron Eckhardt is in it, playing the President; yes, I was right when I said he'd be showing up in more action movies, but sadly wrong about where he'd be in the pecking order; "President who needs to be rescued by Gerard Butler" is practically designated chick. Weirdly, last week's Oblivion had both Melissa Leo (who you hardly see these days) and Morgan Freeman in only a handful of actual speaking parts, and they're back together again this week, presumably glad of the work, and in Melissa's case wishing it didn't come with quite so much getting the crap kicked out of her.

Finally, I hope that Gerard Butler is in fact the greatest actor alive, given how much unsettling conviction he brings to the dickishness of his character, a man who's reasonably nice to small children, grumpy to everyone else and only really comes into his own when he's knifing people or promising to knife them later.

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