Olympus Has Fallen (2013)

2015 #55
Antoine Fuqua | 107 mins | TV | 2.35:1 | USA / English | 15 / R

Olympus Has FallenThe first of Summer 2013’s “Die Hard in the White House” movies, Olympus Has Fallen casts Gerard Butler as the top Secret Service agent who’s also super chummy with President Aaron Eckhart and his kid (Finley Jacobsen). However, after Something Goes Wrong™, Butler is moved to a desk job… but then, when the White House is attacked by terrorists, he’s the only good guy left standing inside. You know the rest, even if you haven’t seen White House Down.

The remarkable thing, watching both movies, is just how many plot beats are so similar. Even when they’re not exactly the same, they’re functionally identical. For example, a plane shoots up Washington merely as a distraction to get the President sent to the White House’s bunker; in White House Down, an explosion at the Capitol is staged merely as a distraction to get the President sent to the White House’s bunker. Both films feature a kid sneaking around the building; a former-Secret-Service traitor-in-their-midst; major characters, including the Speaker of the House, managing the crisis remotely… At least the villains are different: White House Down was based on the Middle East conflict, the villains being Americans wanting it to continue; Olympus Has Fallen is based on the Korean conflict, with nasty foreign villains. Maybe that’s why America liked this better: foreign bogeymen rather than unpatriotic Americans. To be frank, the latter is more interesting.

The real problem with Olympus Has Fallen is that it’s just as daftly OTT as White House Down, but with none of the self-awareness. There are slow-motion shots of characters screaming “no” as someone dies; bullet-torn American flags are tossed to the ground… It’s just as clichéd, but without the knowing wink that makes the other one fun. Foreign bogeymenIn fact, it takes itself very seriously indeed — Fuqua even puts characters’ names and jobs up on screen, as well as timecodes and locations, as if it’s a dramatisation of a real event. Obviously we all know it isn’t, making it feel incredibly odd. The CGI is just as bad as White House Down’s, though the exterior White House stuff looks more real than the obviously-greenscreen locales of the other film. Strikingly, this cost less than half as much ($70m vs. $150m).

On the bright side, the battle on the White House lawn is a good sequence. It’s played as straight as the rest of the film, but on this occasion it works. That said, it’s still just a big shoot-out, of which equally-strong examples can be found in many other action films. White House Down may come up a little short in the exceptionally-memorable sequences stakes too, but at least things like the car chase around the White House lawn — complete with the President firing a rocket launcher! — are trying a bit harder to be original.

Most of the time, the po-faced-ness would render this no more than an adequate and semi-forgettable actioner. By direct comparison to White House Down and all its irreverent fun, This. Is. AMERICA!however, Olympus Has Fallen looks like a far lesser movie. It’s a shame it made it out of the gate first, and that some viewers are not blessed with enough of a sense of humour, because their comparative success has left some quarters with the impression this is the better movie and White House Down is just a clone. Hopefully that’s a wrong we can eventually right.

3 out of 5

Sequel London Has Fallen is out in October.

White House Down (2013)

2015 #51
Roland Emmerich | 126 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.35:1 | USA / English | 12 / PG-13

White House DownUS Capitol policeman Channing Tatum is visiting the White House, trying and failing both to impress his estranged daughter and get a job in the Secret Service, when terrorists attack and try to take President Jamie Foxx hostage. Tatum rescues him from some of them, but with the rest occupying the building the stage is set for “Die Hard in the White House”.

White House Down is less known for that pithy (but accurate) summary than it is for being released the same summer as Olympus Has Fallen, which has virtually the same plot. This had the misfortune of coming second, meaning it took less at the US box office and was dismissed by some critics, too. That said, others — particularly over here, apparently — assert it’s the better of the two. I think where your opinion is likely to land is most succinctly summed up in Film4’s review by Rebecca Davis: “Whether or not you enjoy this film depends entirely on whether you judge it to be po-faced or parody. If you believe it’s the former, you’ll probably hate it. If you believe it’s the latter, you’ll have an absolute blast.” That’s bang on, and I definitely judge it to be a parody. To clarify, not an out-and-out Airplane-style parody, but very much a self-aware retro-styled tongue-in-cheek Action Movie.

I can’t help but feel that most of the movie’s critics didn’t get in on the joke, but I’m really not sure how they missed it. Perhaps they have to watch so much poorly-made crap that they can’t spot when something’s been done deliberately. But White House Down is so gloriously, unashamedly cheesy that it has to be deliberate, and it’s so much fun because of it. It’s certainly not original, nor particularly clever, but a healthy awareness of the inherent ludicrousness of the very concept (and of all the clichés of the genre) keep it entertaining throughout. And based on everything I’ve read, it probably does a better job of being a Die Hard movie than the last couple of real ones have.

It's not a Die Hard movie, honestIf there’s a downside, it’s that this $150 million movie looks like it was made for closer to $15. There’s an overabundance of digital sets, ‘exteriors’ obviously shot on incorrectly-lit soundstages, and terrible CGI. Goodness only knows where all that money went — the actors’ salaries? Tatum and Foxx are good, but I’m not sure they’re worth that much. And here’s a good a time as any to say that this year I’ve become a bit of a Channing Tatum convert. I’d written him off because, to be honest, he looks a bit of a lug and I still think he’s woefully miscast as Gambit in the forthcoming X-Men spin-off. He’s brilliant in this and 21 Jump Street, though, showing a real likeability and flair for comedy. Someone should really team him up with the equally comically adept Dwayne Johnson.

Anyway, White House Down: it may be derivative and look practically direct-to-DVD cheap, but get yourself in the right frame of mind and it’s a ton of fun. It’s a shame the po-faced Olympus Has Fallen was a bigger hit (in the US — worldwide, White House Down won) and is getting sequelised, because I’d far rather see a second adventure for this President/protector pairing.

4 out of 5

Tomorrow, my review of Olympus Has Fallen.