It was mere coincidence that I reviewed the Die Hard clone movie of Sudden Death this past day. It was on my TiVo for months, and I just needed an action movie to occupy my attention. Olympus Has Fallen does indeed follow that Die Hard formula very closely, but also executes it extremely well. This is surely one of the better action movies I’ve seen in recent years, and it is a rock solid R rated outing with the violence never holding back for an instant. So, while Sudden Death was Die Hard in a hockey arena with the Vice President taken hostage, this movie is Die Hard in the White House with the President taken hostage. Believe me, this is a gigantic step up that should please audiences.
When the White House (Secret Service Code: “Olympus”) is captured by a terrorist mastermind (Rick Yune) and the President (Aaron Eckhart) is kidnapped, disgraced former Presidential guard Mike Banning (Gerard Butler) finds himself trapped within the building. As our national security team scrambles to respond, they are forced to rely on Banning’s inside knowledge to help retake the White House, save the President and avert an even bigger disaster.
This is a very well directed effort by Antoine Fuqua. I love that he keeps the film very grounded in the severe drama and peril of the situation, and never feels the urge to indulge in cheesiness. He avoids having anyone spout out one-liners, or do anything to diminish the imminent danger at hand. The film’s first act really sets up the characters well by establishing close relationships around Banning with the President himself and his son Connor. The film begins with a tragic car accident that claims the First Lady’s life, and Banning feels responsible for that. While I did know full well from the trailer that this would happen, the sequence still had an emotional impact on me. The film then flashes ahead eighteen months where Banning is working at the U.S. Treasury, no longer feeling fit for or at ease in the White House. These are all excellently done sequences establishing emotional weight on Mike Banning, and setting him up in a very fleshed out and relatable way. Then, of course, all hell breaks loose upon Washington.
There was a point during this long incursion by the invading forces that I felt it was going on too long, but then, I caught myself. I realized that, one, such a siege would be a lengthy operation and unraveling in multiple parts. Secondly, it was when Banning got into the thick of things that it all picked up for me. It made the violent, frightening sequence less broad, and focused it more on someone that I already identified with. This is where the film has it’s real juice. Focusing in on the character of Banning combating these forces as an extremely capable one man assault made me excited. Getting behind him as the hero energized the movie for me, and got me invested in what was happening. Another reviewer I follow stated that if you replaced Gerard Butler as a Secret Service Agent with Bruce Willis as a New York cop, this would’ve been the perfect Die Hard 5. I entirely get that statement, but Mike Banning is a distinctly different person than John McClane. Banning is a sharply trained tactical force who knows how to handle a situation like this, and how to manipulate his way through the White House, messing with security cameras, moving through hidden passageways, accessing secret vaults with a satellite phone, weapons, and so on. This is an expertly trained agent that systematically and efficiently takes down these terrorists. This is what really sold me on every bit of action.
Gerard Butler is a solid action lead. He puts in a very well-rounded and awesome performance. He certainly has some fun, yet lethal moments with the character, but never goes down the path of witty quips. Even when that humorous bad attitude surfaces, his words hold the weight of a vehement threat. He’s not mouthing off, he’s making strong, direct statements to people. Still, we do get that humor through extreme circumstances that still felt distinct to the character. The filmmakers nor Butler were trying to have Banning be an imitation of anyone else. He’s his own great character. Butler handles himself exceptionally well in every aspect of action here from the tactical gunplay to the hand-to-hand combat. There are some very impressive moves he showcases when he’s squaring off against a deadly opponent. Banning’s definitely a tough guy, but what further makes the role great is the sentimental value we see from him. This mainly comes out with both protecting Connor, and when Mike finally gets on the phone with his wife, who is a doctor in the midst of triage. We get to see the humanity of Banning from early on, before the action, and later on during the action to maintain that balance and dimension with the character. Overall, it’s a very solid character in both conception and execution through Gerard Butler’s talents. He kicks ass in all kinds of ways.
The film’s villain is Kang, portrayed by Rick Yune, and he is one immensely merciless, vile piece of filth. Yune is just awesome as this man who seeks to unleash a horrible fate upon all of America, and unite Korea through military force with very powerful motives behind him. This is absolutely a villain who is despicable and shockingly violent, but maintains a cool head about him. He’s in control of everything, and is willing to demonstrate that control and dominance on a whim. He’s very calculating and intelligent while being disturbingly violent. Rarely have I seen an action movie villain of this serious caliber. Again, the film does not degrade anything by delving into cheesy qualities or eccentricities. Kang is as serious as they come, and his ultimate plans are horrific. Yune gravitates a lot of weight around him, and sells every ounce of this role. He’s definitely the villain this film deserved.
The rest of the cast is filled out with heavyweight talents. Aaron Eckhart is stellar as President Benjamin Asher. The charm and warmth of him is seen early on, but when the hostage crisis befalls him, we see his strength and conviction show through. He won’t allow anyone to be a martyr to him in that bunker, and he never backs down from Kang and his people. Eckhart’s an amazingly strong actor for a role of this sort, and he fills it admirably. And Finley Jacobsen is top notch as the President’s son Connor. He’s a very sweet and enjoyable kid that has a strong bond with Mike Banning. I could definitely feel for him early on when his mother, portrayed by the excellent Ashley Judd, perishes in that plunge off the icy bridge.
We also have Morgan Freeman living up to his high standards as the Speaker of the House Alan Trumbull, who must assume the roe of Acting President in this crisis. Freeman carries Trumbull’s burden with realistic weight as he grapples with these massive decisions of life and death. How he asserts authority over Robert Forster’s General Clegg was a real solid moment that I liked a lot. Angela Bassett, who I think is an amazingly talented screen presence, is here as Banning’s Secret Service Supervisor. She’s all around superb, as is everyone in this picture. We’ve got all these people assembled at the Pentagon, and they come into regular contact with Banning along the way as they try to coordinate their efforts. These scenes carry so much poignancy and immense weight on a global scale, and no one could have asked for a better collection of actors to carry these scenes. And it is a testament to Antoine Fuqua that he was able to utilize these talents so fully and powerfully. Still, that should come as no surprise from the director of Training Day where he directed the excellent Denzel Washington.
And the action sequences Fuqua gives us are exemplary. While the CGI is definitely undercooked more than usual, I could mostly move beyond that to embrace the quality of the action. The digital effects mainly come into play during the air strike scenes with planes, fighter jets, and helicopters being digitally rendered as there was no way they were going to be actually crashing things into the real White House. Aside from that, we get some visceral, pull no punches violence. People, both good and bad, get ripped apart like Swiss cheese by automatic gunfire and are blatantly executed. This is an action film that is selling the realistic intensity of both of these lethally trained forces who will not leave their adversaries alive. There’s a generous helping of blood all over the movie, and it seemed mostly realistic and not digitally created. I think a lot of squibs were used on this, and only a few enhancements were done in select places. If that is indeed the case, I applaud Fuqua for going that route. Far too many action movies these days go the lazy route, and use next to no practical blood effects.
Getting back on track, though, we are treated to some very good action through this runtime. Banning is given plenty of intense scenarios to fight out of, and it is all shot very well. There’s a little shaky cam in there, but it’s fairly mild and the editing is quite good to maintain coherence throughout. It’s just hard hitting stuff that results in the biggest body count I can recall seeing in an action movie, but due to the nature of the plot, one must expect that a shocking volume of bodies fall protecting the White House. The brutality that we get is necessary to selling the tremendous tragic weight of this event, but putting that aside, it’s the veracity in which Banning goes after these infiltrators is where the entertainment value truly lies. The only time he leaves anyone alive for questioning ends up in an awesome, quick scene of extremely persuasive interrogation. He’s not ready to dish out mercy, and has no hesitation in ramming a knife through someone’s skull. It’s scenes like this that really make Banning an entertaining and bad ass hero. We’ve seen him be a nice guy and a solid professional, but in this scenario, he’s not holding back on the bloodletting. He knows the stakes, and has no qualms about doing whatever it takes to rescue the President and take Kang and his people down in decisive, graphic fashion.
It didn’t take me long sitting there in the theatre to take special note of how good the score was. This is a big action movie score the way it’s meant to be done. Composer Trevor Morris has not done anything really worth noting before this movie, but I damn well hope that this is the start of a very noteworthy career. As with the rest of the movie, Olympus Has Fallen does feel like something birthed out of the 1980’s or 90’s in all the right ways. This score is right up there in that vein of Under Siege, Con Air, or Die Hard. It has a sprawling, tightly dramatic style that paints on a large musical canvas for a film of big stakes and large action sequences. It’s very impressive stuff.
Olympus Has Fallen is also greatly written by a pair of apparent first-time writers. This is their only credit on the Internet Movie Database. So, if this is your break into Hollywood, I say it’s a hell of a great first effort. Yes, it is a Die Hard clone, but it takes all the hallmarks of that formula and builds upon it with a story of huge consequences and well written characters. The movie doesn’t put all its cards on the table at the same time. Kang’s ultimate intentions are not fully discovered until the final act of the film, but I will not spoil that here. The script cleverly just lays one piece of the puzzle into place at a time allowing you to be concerned with one major thing at a time. It shows the intelligence of Kang very well, and creates a very solidly plotted film with plenty of anticipation and suspense as realized by Fuqua.
I just say go to the theatre and see this right now! For one, hard R rated action films have been taking a nose dive at the box office, and while most of it has been justified, when something of this damn good quality comes along, it really needs to be supported. Overall, this is simply a fun, exciting ride with the weight of serious stakes and big action. It really beefs up the old formula with a cast of amazing talent, and helmed by a damn good director who knows how to sell something of this scale. This is proof positive that any well-treaded formula can still be executed with impressive results. All it takes is filmmakers with ambition and a solid script to make it a creative success. I surely hope that it will prove to be a financial success because it really does deserve it. Olympus Has Fallen is a solid, hard R action movie that you should absolutely see!
The 1990’s brought us a wild trend in action movies – the Die Hard clone. They were formulaic films that put our action hero protagonist into a confined structure or perilous location, whether it be a battleship, airplane, bus, train, cruise ship, or mountain, and pit him against a team of highly trained terrorists, mercenaries, or what have you. People are taken hostage, and our hero has to battle to save them against impossible odds. Just like with the slasher craze of the 80’s, there were good results and poor results. Considering Steven Seagal, Sylvester Stallone, and Wesley Snipes got their turns, it was inevitable that Jean-Claude Van Damme got his, and for him, the stage is an ice hockey arena. So, is this a good result or a poor one?
Arson investigator and former fire-fighter Darren McCord (Jean-Claude Van Damme) has his daughter suddenly taken alongside the Vice President of the United States (Raymond J. Barry) during the Stanley Cup Championship game in Pittsburgh. With the captors, led by the lethal Joshua Foss (Powers Boothe), demanding a billion dollars by game’s end, McCord frantically sets a plan in motion to rescue his daughter and abort an impending explosion before the final buzzer.
Sudden Death had good talent behind it with some nice turns in the plot, but the lack of ambition becomes apparent after not too long. It never gets clever with the formula, and does feel like a weak imitation of Die Hard with thieves who appear to be terrorists and even our hero communicating with people on the outside. The clichés of the genre can work to great effect if you have the right wit and charisma behind it, but ultimately, it’s the fault of the underwhelming screenplay by a guy who originally wrote this as an action comedy parody. Considering his screenwriting credits include several Police Academy movies as well as the all-out action parody movie Loaded Weapon 1, it’s no surprise that was his intention, and no surprise that he was unable to move the serious incarnation of the script beyond its stereotypical trappings.
Van Damme’s fairly good in the movie. At no point does he slack off, but the script doesn’t give him a great deal to work with. Darren McCord isn’t written to showcase much stress, anxiety, or emotional strain. He certainly has a desperate determination about him, but he generally maintains his cool. Still, Van Damme brings a solid, grounded weight of drama, and a dash of humanity that makes McCord likable and relatable. This is a regular strength for Van Damme. He comes off like an average yet capable guy who has enough intelligence to pull him through these extraordinary circumstances. It’s a rather stock protagonist giving us nothing exceptional or memorable, but Van Damme gives us a good quality performance, regardless.
Powers Boothe gives us a pretty intimidating heavy. He’s cold and entirely ruthless as he casually murders his hostages. Boothe is an actor who’s always carried a lot of weight and presence on screen, and there’s no exception here. So, he is an effective villain, but again, in terms of writing, there’s not much to Joshua Foss. I hate to make the comparison to Die Hard, let alone Hans Gruber, because that is such a uniquely excellent movie and villain, but while we never got much of a back story on Hans, we entirely understood his motivations, intentions, and psychological attitudes. Foss doesn’t give us much aside from the knowledge that he himself is an active duty Secret Service Agent just looking for a hefty payout. It adds a little something to his character by putting him a few steps ahead of the Vice President’s entourage, but on the whole, he just seems like a generic villain with little depth or purpose given to his actions. Foss doesn’t get much opportunity to appear cunning or sharply ingenious, but he is played by an extraordinary actor who makes him appear to be more than he is on paper.
As is the standard for a film shot and directed by Peter Hyams, it has a great moody, almost noir atmosphere through the use of strong shadows, a realistic texture of grit, and strong contrast lighting. I just love how his films look, and I can just tell when it is his artistic eye as cinematographer. It’s a beautiful signature look that creates visual dramatic weight, and it works excellently in this film as it does all his others. Everything is shot with great cinematic sensibilities. The most impressive shot is near the climax when Van Damme is hanging from the opening dome roof. The shot cranes from the action on the ice all the way up to the roof in one beautiful shot. The picture is also very well edited with a solid rhythm and pace that allows the action to carry the momentum of the picture.
The hockey game sequences, which are between the Pittsburgh Penguins and the Chicago Blackhawks, don’t really add much to the momentum of the story except to give us a ticking clock. There are definitely films out there that I would levy criticism against for employing such a cheap storytelling tactic, but Hyams is able to make that tactic work really damn well. Intercutting between that and McCord diffusing one of the bombs, using some tight framing and good, tense music, it results in a reasonably taut moment. Yet, these are fleeting and few moments. They are necessary to the plot, but aren’t given as much focused attention as the movie goes on. The best instance is when the hockey game does go into the obligatory sudden death overtime, delaying the inevitable while McCord is in no position to diffuse the additional bombs.
The action scenes are okay, but do get bigger and better as the film goes on. The stakes increase, and the set pieces become larger and more perilous. Unfortunately, you won’t get your fill of Van Damme martial arts awesomeness here. There’s almost none. While I can surely understand that someone of McCord’s profession wouldn’t realistically have those masterful martial arts skills, if you’re going to see a Van Damme movie, you expect to see that stuff. Still, Van Damme throws himself fully into these action scenes, and clearly does his own stunts, which add quite a bit to the quality of these scenes. The actual climax is all right with McCord and Foss battling on the catwalk as Foss attempts to escape via helicopter. There’s a nice crash and burn ending, but it didn’t grab me. The film just didn’t give me enough emotional investment to engross my attention. It might be because Foss is almost too laid back of a villain, and we don’t get that vile aggressive quality that would amp up the intensity to give us a major pay-off. Even in Under Siege, we get some charismatic villains that energize the film and invite our desire to see them meet a violent demise. This film doesn’t give us this much, and settles for okay in far too many places. The action is good but rarely anything exceptional, and on the whole, the film is largely forgettable. Domestically, it earned only $20 million out of its $35 million budget, and that about accurately reflects the appeal of the movie. It doesn’t have blockbuster written on it. The talent was certainly there to potentially make it a better action movie, but it clearly starts with the script in this case, which has “not trying” over almost all of it.
If you’re just looking for a movie that will decently satisfy your desire for some late night action, like I was, I think Sudden Death is far from your worst choice. Yet, it is no more than average or mediocre. The hero nor the villain are memorable in the least, despite the best efforts of Van Damme and Powers Boothe, and those are two essential elements of a Die Hard clone. Even just based on action movie standards, it’s no better. Van Damme has done much better movies. Basically, any action capable actor could’ve been cast as Darren McCord, and we would’ve had the same movie. Aside from the little dashes of humanity Van Damme adds in, there’s nothing distinct he brings to the movie, especially with the absence of martial arts action. Also, while I should criticize the fact that Foss waits until game seven of the Stanley Cup Finals, a game that wouldn’t even be guaranteed to happen until a day, maybe two, before it happened, to unleash this wildly complex plan of strategically placed explosives, hostage taking, and infiltration, it’s hard to apply that much logic to an action film of this sort. As weakly stereotypical as this movie is, that large gap in logic is hardly the bulk of its shortcomings.
If you do want to check out the movie, avoid the solo DVD release as it is pan-and-scan. Sudden Death was not given the widescreen treatment on DVD here in Region 1 until the release of the Van Damme Four Film Set alongside Hard Target, Lionheart, & The Quest. Sudden Death has been made available in full high-definition widescreen through various video-on-demand services. I was able to watch this in what I call “partial widescreen” via HBO. What I mean by that is the channel broadcasts the film in a 16×9 widescreen format, but it still chops off part of the full 2.35:1 anamorphic frame. Overall, Sudden Death is not at all a bad action movie, but even for a Van Damme / Peter Hyams movie, it’s still inferior to Timecop, which was a lot more fun even if the script was full of holes from its time travel plot paradoxes.