No one villain ever escaped the wrath of Jack Bauer, patriotic bloodhound and doggedly determined field agent of the fictional CTU in action series 24. In one scene from the show’s cartoonishly violent eight seasons, Bauer threatened to push a towel down a man’s oesophagus and yank it out, which would have brought the poor soul’s stomach lining spewing forth. Another man, refusing to talk, saw his wife’s kneecaps blown off. The bad guys got their ‘just deserves’, and how.
But one notable exception was President Charles Logan. The disgraced Logan was captured, not killed, at the close of season five; he was hospitalised, not killed, from a knife wound to the neck in season six; and in season eight, his apparent suicide was revealed to have, in fact, failed.
Why did this man so often escape the clutches of death? Correct me if I’m wrong, but I believe there is a law expressly forbidding depiction of the President of the United States’ killing on both television and film – with the obvious exception of JFK. (If anyone has any examples to the contrary, please let me know.)
Accounting for the president’s invulnerability, hostage movie Olympus Has Fallen presents itself to me devoid of high stakes. President Asher (Aaron Eckhart) hosts the South Korean Prime Minister (Keong Sim) at the White House to discuss the growing North Korean threat, when he and his guests suddenly fall under siege from ridiculously efficient and well-organised terrorists, on the ground and in the sky. The President and his team retreat to the safety of the bunker underneath the White House, where they are kept under proverbial lock and key by North Korean terrorist Kang (Rick Yune). It falls to former security chief Mike Banning (Gerard Butler) to embark on a one-man mission, rescuing POTUS and thereby redeeming himself for a past blunder.
Any happy endings to this nightmare scenario are solely derived from rescuing the President, the only individual in the film that truly matters but whose survival is nevertheless irrefutable. Asher turns to Banning outside the obliterated White House and says, “That’s alright, I have it insured.” The pair of them smirk as a veritable sea of mangled civilian corpses lie scattered all around. Elsewhere, Speaker Allan Trumbull (Morgan Freeman), US Army General Edward Clegg (Robert Forster) et al cry with joy upon seeing the President alive and well. You wouldn’t have known that hundreds of bystanders had just been massacred.
Even in their death, dignity is far from assured. From the moment the first untouchable enemy plane hits the sky, evading fire and capture at every turn, hellfire rains down upon the unsuspecting people of Washington DC. A hail of bullets blows apart men, women and children with 100 per cent accuracy, the camera excitedly lapping up every single second. Throughout this catalytic setpiece, the screen is littered with a cavalcade of poorly constructed CGI; planes, falling flags and a crumbling Washington Monument all appear false.
The persistent, pinpoint killing on the outside becomes one-note in a flash and a bang, and things improve for the better upon Mike Banning’s solo entry into the White House. He’s one man inside a playground of boxed carnage reminiscent of Die Hard – the film does borrow a few tricks from that seminal action flick – and in an environment familiar from past political dramas but now coloured by devastation and pulsing strobes, illuminated in fire and moonlight.
Supporting players fail to disappoint with clichéd “he’s the best man we’ve got!” assurances, defining Butler’s Banning as an indisputable god within the narrative. Although he has a desperate wish to be reunited with his wife Leah (Radha Mitchell) – who wouldn’t in a similar situation? – and a throwaway backstory that narratively distances himself from the President, there is never any indication of infallibility. Banning operates atop a hierarchy of capabilities. Residing at the peak of the pyramid, he invariably outsmarts and outguns his enemies, even when outnumbered. On the next level of the pyramid, we have the terrorists themselves, who execute a flawless assault on the White House, involving a spray of gunfire on army personnel and civilians alike that wastes not a single bullet. At the base level lies the US military, consistently inept in their heavily resourced efforts to strike back. The hierarchy of capabilities suggests that the most ineffectual body comprises the highest number of people, beginning with the army, then the terrorist group at a fraction of the size, and finally ending with the decisive factor of Mike Banning.
It’s no surprise then that Olympus Has Fallen prolongs the action movie tradition of triumphant individualism over adversity, but it also fleetingly throws up a number of other trifling concerns. A plot point briefly arises over the President’s relationship with his son, who still mourns the passing of his mother years earlier. The siege of the White House separates father and son, sending this particular strand of the story into red alert, but once the impeccable Banning arrives on the scene, the issue is resolved almost immediately and with barely any future reference. Equally perplexing is the presence of a mole (Dylan McDermott) inside the President’s security staff whose reasons for defecting – “You sold your soul. Globalisation and fucking Wall Street?!” – are nothing if not hysterical. The traitor’s involvement changes the rules of a so far disappointingly straightforward game, but his confrontation with Banning ends before it’s even begun. Because Banning is perfect, just like Jack Bauer.
There’s little to recommend other than the sight of people being blown to kingdom come in protracted scenes of murder that wouldn’t look out of place in a horror film, especially since director Antoine Fuque shoots every demise with relishing glee. Olympus is Fallen primarily trades in these images of death and destruction, and as a consequence the timing is incredibly unfortunate arriving shortly after the Boston Marathon bombings. As with most films, context changes with the passing seasons and months; not long after this review, the predilections of audiences will have reverted to their default bloodlust (though one suspects North Korea will still occupy headlines). What will endure most after this film – and in spite of it – is its steadfast patriotic vein, encapsulated in President Asher’s closing speech that closely echoes the words of Obama following any given tragic event. It’s a delivery that will strike at the chord of those who find most appeal in the film’s implausible construct, alternately angry and proud.