Olympus Has Fallen – Review

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As wretched a decade as it otherwise was, the ’90s produced some damn fine action movies. I’m reminded of this fact by Olympus Has Fallen, a surprisingly hard-hitting and hard-R action movie whose premise fits squarely into the category of “why the hell hasn’t this been done before? Specifically in the ’90s.” It’s not great – frankly it’s a bit of a mess – but it’s a throwback to greatness and as such earns my affection, like a child dressing like his older brother who died in the accident we don’t talk about. I won’t love him much more, but I like that he tried.

Olympus Has Fallen concerns the plight of not-scottish-honest, Mike Banning (Gerard Butler), an ex-etcetera hardcase who finds himself the fly in the ointment, the monkey in the wrench, the pain in the ass, in a terrorist-overrun White House. The President is a hostage (Aaron ‘The Chin’ Eckhart), the villain’s foreign and the odds are not on his side.

That sounds like an awesome premise because it is, and the execution of said White House overrunning is an absolute joy; intense, wantonly violent and directed with real weight and sadistic glee by Training Day-helmer, Antoine Fuqua. It’s quite unsettlingly right-wing in place, especially in its depictions of most North Koreans as absolute fruit-and-nutcakes, but that was just part of its retro charm for me. After this and the remake of Red Dawn, North Koreans seem to be today’s equivalent of the Ruskies or Eurobastards of old.

It’s just a shame the film becomes a bit of a visual shambles after the first act. The action’s well choreographed and the sound design is joyfully crunchy but it’s near-ruined by so much of the film’s action taking place not only in darkness, but in shaky-cam’ed darkness. This not only blurs the sense of location, making each dark room of the White House look the same, but it deadens the action too. This shooting style often makes sense if the director’s trying to sweep sloppy stunt coordination under the carpet or squeeze a 12A by underplaying the violence’s visual impact, but it’s especially baffling here because this stuff’s good. Hard-15 good! There’s fucks and blood aplenty so turn the lights on, take the camera away from the guy with tremens and let us enjoy it, movie.

The other problem is that this is a movie we’ve all seen before. Now don’t get me wrong, the fact that this is a “Die-Hard in a…” movie is, for me, the core of its appeal. I love these things. Air Force One, Under Siege, Cliffhanger – you make ’em, I’ll watch ’em – and it’s been years since we’ve seen a decent attempt at a Die Hard movie, both Lockout and A Good Day To Die Hard showing up dead on arrival. The problem is, this isn’t like Die Hard, this is Die Hard. Certain plot beats are to be expected but this movie plunders so comprehensively from the original Die Hard that it barely seems legal.

– spoilers –

For example, the hero is having relationship troubles with his wife at the start of the film. I know, I know, that’s a pretty common trope, so how about these? The smart-suited villain starts his plan by shooting a middle-aged asian man in the head. The villain needs a series of codes, having his computer whiz hack the ones he can’t get. The hero has a radio to the good guys, who consist of an grey-haired prick and a sage black man. The villain and the hero trade barbs over the radio and the hero trumps the villain’s book-smarts with swearing and taunting him about how many of his men he’s killed. The hero sneaks around the inner tunnels of the building, narrowly avoiding blindly-fired bullets whilst doing so. In a show of bravado, the grey haired prick sends some swat men to their deaths despite the hero’s pleas that it’ll get them killed. The hero meets a villain who pretends to be a good guy, and they chat while having a smoke. A plan by the good guys involving helicopters goes south. The hero narrowly avoids a massive roof explosion by jumping off said roof. The villain’s original demands are just there to cover up an alternate scheme. At his lowest moment, the hero picks glass from his body whilst on the radio to the sage black man. The villains plan to use an explosion to fake their own death. The hero reconciles his marriage with his wife surrounded by ambulances. That’s taking imitation beyond flattery and into The Talented Mr Ripley territory.

Plus, it’s all shot so flatly, with mostly digital blood, and a crippling lack of charisma in the script. The structure’s all there, the plot beats are all there – ripped off wholesale but present and correct all the same – the screenplay just needed a once over from a Joss Whedon; a dialogue guy. All the archetypes are in place, they’re just not given anything characterful or fun to say. So it’s a rote copy of Die Hard, only with less personality. So why bother, right?

But I did still like it. The premise is bombastic, exploited well, and as long as you lower those expectations you’ll walk away happy enough. I guess it’s just endemic of the PG-13 toothless era of action flicks that a few Fucks and some decently vicious gunshots to the head are enough to squeak a recommendation out of a film that would’ve been laughed out of cinemas in the ’90s.

It’s a bittersweet pleasure really, because what this movie did above all else was just remind me of stuff I miss. I miss blood-packs. I miss people dropping f-bombs like they were about to die or something – because they were! I miss movies that knew kids were going to find a way to see them anyway and never blunted their teeth to reach that more ‘lucrative’ younger rating. Olympus Has Fallen is certainly a step towards that cherished ’90s style, even if only a baby step, so if you have the money to spare why not check it out. Or just watch Die Hard again. Or Speed. Or Point Break. Or Die Hard 2. Or Terminator 2. Or Con Air. Or Cliffhanger. Or Air Force One. Or The Rock.

God, I miss the ’90s.

(and yes I know Die Hard was ’88)

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