Leonidas. Atilla the Hun. Beowulf. Dracula. The Phantom. Gerard Butler has covered an impressive number of legendary figures in his 20-year career, wielding swords and growling in every century we have a number for – and a few we don’t. Unfortunately, he’s never really found a hero for the 21st century.
Enter Olympus Has Fallen, and Mike Banning. Butler swapped his gladius for a glock and a shield for a shotgun to head up this new franchise as its resident ripoff John McClane, an indispensible hero for the Expendables generation. The series had a rocky start, fending off White House Down by the skin of its teeth to claim the 2013 White House Attack Movie crown, only to take a beating from the FCC for using the US Emergency Alert System in trailers. Nevertheless, the series soldiered on, returning in 2016 with London Has Fallen – which brought the bloodthirsty carnage to our fair capital, amid accusations of poor timing and insensitivity.
Despite legendarily negative reviews, the Fallen series has only risen higher at the box office, and the latest edition, Angel Has Fallen, is out this week. What better occasion to banish one of these travesties into the Citizen Kane of Awful Hall of Fame?
13 minutes in Heaven
Anyone who paid to see Olympus Has Fallen paid for one thing, and it’s hard to deny that it bloody well delivers on that count. The assault on the White House is admittedly breathtaking – the carnage, the casualties, the commitment to blowing up American apparel at every opportunity. We later learn from the deservedly proud Terrorist-in-Chief Kang that it only took 13 minutes to take 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, and this sequence basically plays out in real time, from the first air strike to the last headshot. The body count is insane, which ends up backfiring as the relentless blood-splatter rapidly ceases to be mesmerising and becomes meaningless, as later action sequences fail to match the opening salvo.
Big, Bloody Shoes to Fill
London Has Fallen doesn’t manage to top the war at the White House – the terror attack that kicks off proceedings goes way too far in its effort to up the ante against its predecessor (more on this later). However, while the action of Olympus Has Fallen quickly bores in its effort to mimic Die Hard at every opportunity, London finds its own groove in the final act, with a cracking tracking shot as Banning and an SAS team descend upon a terrorist hideout. It’s very Call of Duty, but those games sell for a reason.
A guy falls down a hole…
Olympus Has Fallen would make a great Die Hard film – but it isn’t, and Mike Banning certainly isn’t John McClane. Olympus falters at every turn when Banning is flying solo against the enemy – the script is woefully lacking when it comes to characterisation, and even stumbles in the all-important one-liner department. Butler shines most when he’s playing against someone, whether its Rick Yune’s Kang or Angela Bassett’s no-nonsense Secret Service Chief, and this goes double for London Has Fallen. Aaron Eckhart doesn’t get much to do in the series than play the dashing American President, but he and Butler have solid rapport and their scenes on the run together make for some of London’s most tolerable moments.
It would be unreasonable to expect Olympus Has Fallen to not include any glaringly overt patriotism. Obviously the plane is going to knock through the Washington Monument, and Banning killing a baddie in the oval office WITH A BUST OF LINCOLN is undeniably awesome. But this level of red-blooded “USA!” chanting is nauseating long before the multiple shots of the American flag getting “coincidentally” riddled with bullets, and falling enigmatically to the ground in the rose garden, before rising gloriously in time for a not-so-rousing speech about unity, togetherness and America’s steadfast commitment to wiping out its enemies in a spray of gunfire. If that wasn’t cringeworthy enough, the whole thing takes on another level of ridiculousness when you remember that GERARD BUTLER IS SCOTTISH.
“They’ve Decimated Most of London’s Known Landmarks”
The Good Doctor Mark Kermode has already led a hearty crusade against this particular line of ham-fisted idiocy, but it’s indicative of a larger problem in both films. Sure, it’s an action movie and moronic exposition comes with the ticket price, but there is a line – and that line is “Mike Banning, he will move mountains or die trying.” No one has ever described someone like that outside of a wrestling arena, let alone inside the White House Situation Room.
The awkward setup extends to general character-building – Olympus opens with setting up that Aaron Eckhart is not just the President, he’s a cool President who boxes and stuff. Similarly, his wife isn’t just the First Lady, she’s a cool First Lady who flirts with the help and stuff (reverse Clintons, when you think about it).
Casualties of War
Olympus Has Fallen, like most blockbusters, is fairly high-concept: what if terrorists attacked the White House? It’s not unreasonable that the scene would be the star, but it is criminal how Olympus wastes a talented cast in such thin roles. As an off-brand Hans Gruber, Rick Yune acquits himself admirably as a generic terrorist leader; but everyone else gets short shrift in the screentime department.
Angela Bassett and Aaron Eckhart both sit on the sidelines, waiting to be called up for a stirring monologue or a gutsy moment of bravery, and instead find themselves quite literally cheering Banning on from the bench. As the true President of us all, Morgan Freeman does a great job of making you feel safe and warm inside, like a hot cuppa and a fuzzy blanket, but we don’t learn a goddamn thing about him until the sequel – and even then it’s just that he likes to fish(?!).
Meanwhile, in “Fuckheadistan”…
No one is expecting a summer blockbuster to criticise the US and its way of life, but the saccharine Americana becomes particularly sickly when paired with the xenophobic bitterness of London Has Fallen. Olympus director Antoine Fuqua has explained that he was keen to avoid this by using North Korean terrorists rather than a middle eastern cell – as though there’s an OK group of people to mow down with machine guns – but London goes for broke as a Pakistani terrorist wages war on the western world, with his men masquerading as the emergency services.
This leads to nasty sequences of Banning and co. killing police officers because they don’t look like police officers – in one scene Banning remarks that they must be terrorists because “they’re not sweaty”, but his criterion feels deeper when a minute later he’s telling them to “go back to Fuckheadistan” and cracking on with some good old-fashioned torture. The basic premise seems like it might go for something a little more nuanced, with a crazed father seeking revenge after his daughter is killed by a drone on her wedding day, but the film sidesteps any complexities and goes hell-for-leather, with the US solving the problem by blowing him up with a drone at the end of the movie.
Gratuity should be optional
Everything about these movies feels gratuitous: the violence, the relentless patriotic dick-swinging – even the swearing becomes meaningless after you’re dropping the F-bomb three times while asking for a glass of water. The film seems to think it’s enjoyable to watch wave after wave of civilians die in a haze of bullets and shrapnel, while slapping you about the face with echoes of all-too-recent tragedies. It’s almost horrifying to imagine anyone thinking this is a nice way to spend two hours, let alone filmmakers feeling happy to drop $60 million dreaming up this rancid mayhem. Sure, there’s a great hero saving the day, but the film never stops to question just how much fun he is having gunning down anyone in his path – and what kind of hero is that?
Olympus has Fallen
Kane Rating: 3/5
London has Fallen
Kane Rating: 2/5
Of the two, Olympus definitely comes close to being “So bad it’s good”, but in reality both films should be consigned to the rubbish heap of cinema as the xenophobic Die Hard knockoffs they are at their heart.
So that should provide a tidy summation of the series to date, but don’t worry – there’s more on the way in the upcoming Angel Has Fallen. Presumably this time, Mike Banning will be tasked with protecting the good lord himself when Satan and his armies lay siege to the pearly gates (OK, that would be awesome).