Thursday, March 21, 2013

'Olympus' falls into a dumb, violent heap

The White House is under attack, along with all credibility
At one point during a preview screening of the woeful Olympus Has Fallen, I wrote these two words in my notebook: "Ridiculous tripe."

That may not represent the deepest analysis, but then depth isn't exactly at issue when it comes to a thriller that's more interested in carnage than commentary. Olympus Has Fallen probably has the late and often great John Frankenheimer spinning in his grave. Frankenheimer put Washington under threat in movies as intelligent and varied as The Manchurian Candidate and Seven Days in May. Olympus Has Fallen puts Washington under threat with a barrage of CGI-created rubble, rampant gunfire and laughable turns of plot.

Director Antoine Fuqua, working from preposterous script by Creighton Rothenberger and Katrin Benedikt, creates a film that slams its way toward a simple-minded mano-e-mano finale between a lone Secret Service agent (Gerard Butler) and a rogue terrorist from North Korea (Rick Yune).

Fuqua (Training Day) is not without talent, but a movie about a terrorist attack on the White House either needs to stake a claim in the world of fantasy or pass a rudimentary test of realism: Olympus Has Fallen does neither.

And rather than lending the movie an air of topicality, recent bellicosity on the part of North Korea struck me as little more than an unfortunate coincidence.

If Olympus attracts a crowd, it may be because audiences are willing to regard it as an example of enhanced mayhem, an accepted form of entertainment these days. I'd blame our endless capacity to find joy in watching things and people destroyed, as well as the presence of a strong but ill-used cast that includes Aaron Eckhart (as the president), Morgan Freeman (as Speaker of the House and eventually acting president), Melissa Leo (as Secretary of Defense), Angela Bassett (as the head of the Secret Service) and Radha Mitchell (as the wife of Butler's character, one Mike Banning by name).

That's an impressive line-up, but acting hardly matters as Fuqua pours on enough mind-numbing action to swamp the movie's opening scenes, which at least are novel, if not entirely believable.

In the middle of a blinding snowstorm, the president is being driven from Camp David to the home of one his major donors for a Christmas party. The president's limo veers off the road, resulting in the death of the First Lady (Ashley Judd).

Judd's character dies despite Banning's efforts to save her. The grieving president, who also has a young son, decides that Banning should be shelved. Stuck in an office job at the Treasury Department, Banning doesn't reactivate until a visit from the Prime Minster of South Korea goes terribly awry.

As part of the attack, Yune's Kang -- a terrorist who leads a small army against the White House -- works his way into the underground fortress where the president and his team are hidden once the attack begins.

An even bigger (and, of course, world threatening) plan lies beneath all the surface pyrotechnics, but that scheme proves as dumb as everything else about a movie that relies on lame dialogue, rote performances and the willingness of audiences to make gargantuan suspensions of disbelief.

Olympus Has Fallen isn't the first movie to litter the screen with violence, but this one makes an apologetic attempt at self-justification by wrapping itself in the America flag.

In so doing, the filmmakers suggest that the old adage had it all wrong: Patriotism isn't the last refuge of scoundrels. It's the last refuge of hack work. I don''t know how you'll feel, but I'm not saluting.

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