More than a decade ago, Antoine Fuqua directed Denzel Washington to a Best Actor Academy Award for Training Day, a blistering day-in-the-life saga of a criminal mastermind who just happened to be one of L.A.’s most experienced cops. Now he’s making fourth-rate Die Hard clones like Olympus Has Fallen, which stars a lot of past Oscar nominees and winners who – I’m going out on a limb here – will not be recognized next year for their work on this particular film.
In fact, the cast of Olympus, quite literally a White House action film, is bizarrely packed with big-league names: Aaron Eckhart as the President of the United States, Morgan Freeman as the Speaker of the House, Melissa Leo as the Secretary of Defense, Ashley Judd as the First Lady, Angela Bassett as the director of the Secret Service, and Rochester’s native son Robert Forster as a blustering Army general. Among these luminaries, one man stands out: the picture’s actual leading man, goofball one-of-these-days-someone’s-gonna-figure-out-I-have-no-talent bohunk Gerard Butler. I can’t decide if he was foisted on his co-stars or if they were all slipped a Mickey during the cast party for some other, better movie. Either way, one of these things is not like the others. Butler is that thing.
He plays Mike Banning, a disgraced Secret Service agent who’s resentfully riding a desk when, after breakfast one day, seemingly every terrorist in the world comes together to invade Washington, kill a lot of people in air and ground assaults, lay siege to the White House, take the President hostage in an impregnable underground bunker, and glower menacingly. Mike, who sees all this happening from the window by his desk, sprints several blocks over to Pennsylvania Avenue so he can be the one man who manages to stay alive long enough to hole up in the devastated White House, kill one terrorist at a time, and stockpile weapons for the Big, Bloody Finale.
A few weeks back, while writing a column for the print papers about the rich 25-year legacy of Die Hard wanna-be’s, I was reminded yet again of just how appealing the raw template of that original film can be when executed with a little wit and creativity. Familiarity doesn’t have to breed contempt. But Olympus Has Fallen has contempt for us: it’s filmmaking by photocopier, as Butler’s Banning is taken through a rote series of predictable me-against-an-army maneuvers as tiresome as they are manipulative. The cartoonish ease with which the White House is assaulted is silly, but that’s nothing compared to the laughable conceit that conveniently puts Banning in the action while dozens of other characters fall for no better reason than they’re not the star of the movie. We’re never given a reason why Banning isn’t dead along with the other victims of the terrorist attack; he just is. As for the attack itself, the bad guys seem to have multiple motives but none ever really stick – there’s no there there.
Finally, there’s the body count. Olympus Has Fallen is one of the bloodiest mainstream movies in recent history, and that violence is as indiscriminate as it is numbing: by the time the first waves of gunfire and explosions has ended, you’re inured to the chaos that follows – including any sense of risk to Banning himself, which ought to be the point of the film. An action picture where the action seems inconsequential is in big trouble. Fuqua has directed duds before, but it’s taken this film to make me wonder if Training Day was all he had in him. It’s an early contender for worst movie of the year.