Action fans have been crying out to Hollywood for years to deliver something as gritty, heartfelt, and rip-roaring as 1988's Die Hard. Director Antoine Fuqua (Training Day, Shooter) has heard those calls and responded with Olympus Has Fallen, a close quarters, man-vs.-an-army thriller that gets it mostly right, thanks to star Gerard Butler's mix of swagger and innate brutality. Why it can't live up to Die Hard (what could?) is in the sensationalism of the scenario: in this version, an office building is the White House, the maniacal Hans Gruber replaced by an endless force of North Koreans bent on America's destruction. Fuqua makes the stealthy techniques of Butler's Agent Mike Banning exhilarating, but pads it with blockbuster-sized bookends and more bloodshed than your typical Saw flick. Think of Olympus Has Fallen as Die Too Hard.
After a routine mission goes horribly wrong, Secret Service agent Banning is relieved of his position as head of security for President Benjamin Asher (Aaron Eckhart). Years after the debacle, Banning finds himself thrown back into action when a group of North Korean terrorists strike D.C., hitting the White House from every direction. The introductory mayhem is one of the more gruesome set pieces in recent memory: a Korean plane swoops over D.C., firing hundreds of rounds into unsuspecting pedestrians; tourists photographing the White House rip off their coats to reveal machine guns, a frontline for the home invasion; unmarked vans throw open their doors, functioning as makeshift tanks that clear a path. It's all out war and Fuqua doesn't hold back in the reality department. The front row of the theater is a splash zone.
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When the action finally hones in on Banning — who shoots his way from behind the gun-toting Korean soldiers to gain entry to the White House — Olympus Has Fallen uncovers real thrills. Butler sells the punches, the stealth, the one-liners, and the gruff patriotism — he's more Jack Bauer than John McClane, a guy who can and will do anything to accomplish the mission. You never doubt him, and even when Olympus swerves in the wrong direction — oh no, a kid lost in the White House subplot! — Butler forcefully grabs the steering wheel and drives it back on course. His character builds to make any absurdity fit the movie's mosaic of action, building with close combat attacks and an interrogation scene straight out of the 24 playbook, and escalating all the way to a bazooka shootout.
If only there was more of Butler in the movie. Olympus splits its time pretty evenly between Morgan Freeman and Angela Basset, government officials spouting every "My… God…" variation imaginable while managing the crisis from a boardroom, and Eckhart's President Asher, who spends a majority of the movie handcuffed to a railing. The terrorists bark threats of nuclear apocalypse, the suits in Washington react. It's all padding to Butler's main quest. Melissa Leo manages to light up the screen momentarily as the captured Secretary of Defense; at one point, she's dragged across the ground by her hair. Her response? Scream the Pledge of Allegiance in an act of defiance. As the movie often does, the scene crosses the disturbing line to circle all the way back to bizarre fun.
In front of the wrong pair of eyes, Olympus Has Fallen could be a provocation of jingoism. For fans looking for a slight actioner with slick production value and a Hungry-Man serving of machismo, it's passable fun. Just don't take the image of the Washington Monument being shot to bits, smashing into helpless American citizens into puddles of blood, as a call to arms.
Follow Matt Patches on Twitter @misterpatches
[Photo Credit: Film District]
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Albert Markovski (Jason Schwartzman) a bleeding heart poet and staunch environmentalist is convinced a series of unexplained coincidences involving a tall African doorman somehow mean something leading him to married metaphysicians Bernard and Vivian Jaffe (Dustin Hoffman and Lily Tomlin)--otherwise known as the Existential Detectives. Instead of looking for other people this pair tirelessly investigates the mysteries of their clients' secret innermost lives--their "Beings " so to speak--to help them answer their questions. Immediately digging in Bernard and Vivian find out that Albert has a deep-seated hatred for Brad Stand (Jude Law) a golden-boy sales executive at the popular retail superstore chain Huckabees who at first sponsors Albert's Open Spaces Coalition to save a nearby marsh from commercial construction but who ends up taking over the coalition. The Existential Detectives believe Brad may be the key to cracking Albert's case but get sidetracked when Brad hires them for himself--leading them to explore Brad's ambitions hang-ups and his superficial relationship with Huckabees' hot blonde spokesmodel Dawn (Naomi Watts). Meanwhile Albert becomes disenfranchised with Bernard and Vivian and pairs up with another of the duo's clients--firefighter tough guy and uncompromising soul searcher Tommy (Mark Wahlberg). Together they join forces with the Jaffes' arch nemesis sexy French philosopher Caterine Vauban (Isabelle Huppert) whose life teachings revolve around "cruelty manipulation and meaninglessness." Now as Being intermixes with Nothingness Albert Tommy Brad Dawn Bernard Vivian and Caterine get all tangled up in one another as their wild romp through life's biggest questions brings them to some startling truths. Whew!
With such a clever script to back them up it isn't hard to see why the Huckabees wannabes turn in some cracking good performances. Schwartzman once again plays a nebbish sullen but lovable geek (similar to his side-splitting turn in Rushmore) bringing out the film's heart and soul especially with his environmental poetry ("You ROCK rock!"). Veterans Hoffman and Tomlin who are dead-on as the happily married Existential Detectives and Huppert as the deadpan French philosopher complement the proceedings beautifully. For the first time in a long time Hoffman doesn't overplay his part instead letting his quiet inner "Being" out taking his character's philosophies to heart ("Everything you ever desired or wanted to be you already have and are"). But who knew more serious actors--Mark Wahlberg Jude Law and Naomi Watts--could be so excruciatingly funny? Wahlberg's freethinking obstinate firefighter would rather ride a bike to a fire than get into a gas-guzzling fire truck while Watts' Dawn decides she doesn't need to be pretty and is fearless with overalls a bonnet and Oreo cookies stuck in her teeth. As the straight man Law actually has the most difficult part playing the handsome cad who thinks he doesn't believe in all that existential bullcrap but ever so slightly gets slammed with the reality of it anyway.
Writer/director David O. Russell is one fascinating guy. With a body of work including the really weird and wild Spanking the Monkey the hilarious slapsticky Flirting With Disaster and the intense Three Kings it's obvious he is capable of handling a wide variety of subjects. With Huckabees Russell gets into some serious deep thinking. He says he became "intrigued with the idea of a detective following someone around not for any criminal or personal intrigue but rather as part of a very serious investigation about existence itself " drawing concepts from several different strains of existentialism--from the non-dual interconnectedness theories of Eastern philosophy (Bernard and Vivian's take) to the Sartrean notions of a more meaningless universe that demands a profound individualism (Caterine's point of view). Huh? Don't worry your pretty little heads about it too much. Russell's bone-crushing sense of humor comes shining through--as does his unique vision as the camera is used in new and different ways (especially creative when Albert is trying to find his "Being")--to piece together a wondrous coherent albeit thought-provoking little gem. Oscar gold awaits.