Wednesday 17 April 2013

Murders at 1600: "Olympus Has Fallen"

The Hollywood action movies isn't just recycling its old warhorses - Sly, Bruce, Arnie and the other Expendables - but its battle-hardened plots. Olympus Has Fallen is the kind of thick-eared, tubthumping flagwaver that might have easily emerged back in the late 1990s around the time of Air Force One, the last big-screen assault on the American presidency. Its USP is a new foe, which makes it, mostly unintentionally, the season's timeliest release. Just as the recent Red Dawn switched villains to make North Korea its chosen bad guy, so we here see Kim Jong-un's boys and girls staging a sneaky aerial assault on the Washington Monument - imagery that would have been unacceptable a decade ago, in the wake of the Twin Towers' falling - and thereafter swarming like ants into the White House, where they proceed to hold Clinton-esque President Aaron Eckhart, and the rest of the Western world, to ransom. The only man who can save him, and us, is L'Orealled chancer Gerard - sorry, GERARD BUTLER as the bodyguard and erstwhile Presidential sparring pal who's been relegated to working the low-stakes night shift at the Treasury after presiding over the detail that saw the First Lady's car plummet off a bridge in icy conditions. 

Essentially, it's The West Wing with all that walking and talking replaced by running, punching and shooting, and part of the not inconsiderable fun to be had with it is the incongruous classiness of its supporting cast. The Pres gets chained up in a bunker alongside Defense Secretary Melissa Leo, who gets punched in the face and stripped to her underwear as the Koreans go after the country's nuke codes, and still has the tenacity to make this role seem less demeaning than her virtual appearance in Oblivion. Over at the command centre, meanwhile, Secret Service director Angela Bassett swears in the House Speaker as acting President, thus restoring Morgan Freeman to the top job he last held in 1998's Deep Impact; together with General Robert Forster, they knit their brows at screens (yes, there's a big red clock counting down to nuclear armageddon) while Gerard grunts around doing all the dirty work.

The model isn't quite Jerry Bruckheimer's late-90s output: as a recession-era actioner from sometime DTV specialists Millennium Films, Olympus doesn't have the budget to go big, hence the conspicuous cruddiness of some of its visual effects work. If anything, it's closer to one of Roland Emmerich's "what-ifs", thinking as long and as hard as it can manage about the ways any disgruntled outsiders might stage an attack on the White House in the modern age. (For the record: aerial distraction, suicide bombers on the ground, and the presence of an insider among the President's men, no matter that he'll stick out to seasoned character actor-watchers like a very sore and questionably threatening thumb.) All its thinking is to no great end, yet if Olympus Has Fallen is trash, it's remarkably revealing and illuminating trash; while the script labours away at its dumb-lunk set-ups and pay-offs, some of its imagery has the vivid, jolting kick of a collective consciousness nightmare, and you can see exactly why the film has been the solid hit it has in a country still (this week, understandably) terrified such scenes as these might come to pass for real.

Supremely organised armies of pinch-faced immigrants overwhelming the system; endless shots of tattered and fluttering Stars and Stripes; the crazed conviction that one lone individual, gifted the right arsenal and a significantly reduced Government, might repel any pressing threat to the status quo. It's wittier about it, but Olympus brings the Taken films' protectionist/flatly racist foreign policy back into the domestic realm: every gook Gerard takes out is another step along the way to restoring even that emasculated America of male moisturising products and throwaway romcoms our hero represents - to sustaining business as usual. From this, it's hard not to take a sense that an enfeebled America is desperate for such foes to better define itself; that a cowboy cannot ride in isolation - or indeed sit behind a Treasury desk - for too long. January's Zero Dark Thirty effectively put the nation's last public enemy to bed; what Olympus Has Fallen inadvertently reveals to us is America's need to find a new boogeyman against which to demonstrate its strength. Kim Jong-un can rattle all the sabres he owns, but as Gerard - sorry, GERARD, that master of close-quarters combat, knows all too well, it takes two to tangle.

Olympus Has Fallen is in cinemas nationwide.

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