Olympus Has Fallen is a noisy throwback to an 80s and 90s era of action movies such as Executive Decision, Air Force One, or Under Siege; films that riffed on Die Hard‘s thrilling hero-in-a-confined-space plot. In fact, Olympus Has Fallen’s Die Hard-in-the-White-House concept has probably kicking around in the heads of Tinseltown movie producers for years – it’s just been a matter of waiting until the time was right.
In the 80s and 90s, special effects probably weren’t good enough to make an audience believe that the most famous house in America was under attack from terrorists. After 9/11, the technology was there, but the concept would almost certainly have been deemed in horrifically poor taste. And so it is that in the year 2013, it’s Gerard Butler, rather than his action movie forebears Bruce Willis or Sylvester Stallone, who plays the tough-talking lead tasked with repelling a terrorist attack.
As you might expect, the plot’s simple stuff: Korean terrorists take over the White House in a furious exchange, and with the president stuck in subterranean bunker with lead villain Kang (Rick Yune) and a bunch of other survivors and villains, only agent Banning can save the day.
Although Taken 2 and A Good Day To Die Hard played it safe with harshly muted violence for 12A certificates, Olympus Has Fallen is the latest in a new wave of movies which bucks this trend of softening action for a lower rating. Just as Arnold Schwarzenegger’s surprisingly harsh The Last Stand and Sly Stallone’s axe-wielding Bullet To The Head displayed a decidedly retro display of violence, so Olympus Has Fallen continues the visual assault with some bloodshed which, for those unprepared, might seem quite startling.
Butler’s Mike Banning raises an interesting question about action movie heroes in a post-Xbox landscape. Just as videogames are in thrall to the classics of American cinema (in particular James Cameron’s work, if you’re talking about sci-fi shooters) so modern action movies appear to be leaning increasingly towards games when they’re creating action scenes. It’s no secret that the majority of action and adventure films are broadly aimed at people in their teens and 20s, and it seems that Olympus Has Fallen is aimed fairly directly at a generation familiar with such shooters as Gears Of War or the Call Of Duty franchise.
The link between Olympus Has Fallen and videogames appears to be alluded to in one of its earliest scenes, in which the president’s young son is seen playing Uncharted 3. The Uncharted games, as anyone who’s played them will tell you, are like an updated, interactive take on the Indiana Jones movies. The series’ hero, Nathan Drake, is a loveable rogue with a passion for global adventures and lost treasures. Expertly voiced by Nolan North, he’s an unusually human, fallible protagonist; like Jones, his cliff-hanging scrapes leave him battered and in pain.
But unlike Indiana Jones, Nathan Drake slaughters bad guys in their thousands – the body count of the first Uncharted game alone surely exceeds the number of people Indy killed during his four cinematic adventures combined. (According to the website Movie Body Counts, the total death toll in Raiders Of The Lost Ark was 84.)
The high body count in Uncharted when compared to Raiders is, of course, simply a sign of how different games and films really are. For one thing, we expect modern videogames to offer a much longer experience than a movie; anything less than eight hours is, in game terms, considered to be too thin. It’s inevitable, then, that Nathan Drake would end up shooting more people than Indiana Jones, since he spends so much longer engaged in various gun battles.
This constant need to have the player on their toes, to provide a constant sense of action and excitement, can often lead to an amusing split between the videogame character’s personality and their actions. Nathan Drake hobbles around with injuries and on the brink of exhaustion in some scenes, but when the player takes over, he’s able to take on an entire army in the next.
It’s something highlighted in the recent Tomb Raider reboot, which imagines the series’ heroine Lara Croft as an ordinary young woman thrust into a terrifying ordeal on a remote island. The first time she kills a human being is presented as an important, dramatic moment in the game; we understand her horror at what she’s done, but also recognise that she’s made the transition from a position of helplessness to one of strength. But the drama of this moment is undercut somewhat by what follows: just like Nathan Drake, or a legion other videogame protagonists, Lara spends the rest of the game offing bad guys in their droves.
In the context of the game, we’ve come to accept these sometimes jarring clashes between characterisation and content. But in movies, we’re perhaps more critical about a protagonist’s capacity for violence. The 2008 Rambo sequel, for example, saw Sylvester Stallone’s hero tear out throats and slaughter a reported 87 villains in spectacularly gory fashion. Excessive though it was, the film just about got away with it, partly because of Sly’s usual hangdog charisma, and also because his character was already established as a basically decent, somewhat put-upon force for good in the previous movies.
Gerard Butler’s Mike Banning, however, has no such film history to fall back on, and he could easily serve as a player’s avatar in a first-person shooter. He’s a bull-necked, Kevlar vest-wearing human wrecking ball who barks out orders and guns down terrorists without mercy. He tortures, he stabs throats, crushes faces, snaps wrists. It’s difficult to count how many people he shoots in the skull at close-quarters.
Olympus Has Fallen feels remarkably like an attempt to make a Jerry Bruckheimer or Joel Silver action movie for a generation raised on videogames. With hit titles such as Modern Warfare 3 introducing all kinds of ruthless villains, worldwide terrorist threats and brawny heroes, it’s no surprise, perhaps, that Hollywood producers might think it a potentially lucrative idea to respond in kind, to outdo its rival medium at its own game, as it were.
None of this is to say that Olympus Has Fallen is fun, of course. As Ron pointed out in his review, it’s undeniably exciting, and director Antoine Fuqua brings with him a sense of urgency akin to an 80s Hong Kong action flick. But in concentrating so heavily on depicting Banning as an action archetype – all bravery and muscle, and little more – leaves the film without a major part of what made, say, Die Hard or Lethal Weapon great: a wryly funny, relatable central character. As a killing machine, one can only sit and stare agape at Banning’s abilities. But as a human, likeable hero, he’s something of a blank.
As the popularity of videogames continues to rise, we’ll probably see more films like Olympus Has Fallen, which fuse adventure scenarios with the frenzied adrenaline rush of the interactive medium. But while there’s nothing wrong with rising body counts and ever more inventive uses of fights and explosions – just look at the ‘heroic bloodshed’ movies of John Woo – action filmmakers shouldn’t forget that their protagonists need a touch of humanity, too.
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