I so wanted to start this review with the emphatic words, “THEY GOT IT RIGHT!” Now, this is not to say this movie doesn’t move G.I. Joe into the right direction, but it left me lacking for many reasons. One of them being that this movie had too many trailers that spoil too much. If you’ve seen all three trailers for G.I. Joe: Retaliation, there are not many surprises left for you here. But frankly, the big problem with this film is that the villains and far more entertaining and memorable than the heroes. Simply said, I wanted Cobra to win because I didn’t care about the Joes.
Mercenary and master of disguise Zartan, who is still impersonating the President of the United States (Jonathan Pryce), frames the G.I. Joes as traitors, and has them terminated. However, three survive in Roadblock (Dwayne Johnson), Lady Jaye (Adrianne Palicki), and Flint (D.J. Cotrona) who must go it alone in order to fight back against those who conspired to kill them and their fellow Joes. Meanwhile, Storm Shadow (Lee Byung-hun) and Firefly (Ray Stevenson) initiate a prison break to free Cobra Commander (Luke Bracey, voiced by Robert Baker) to set the next stage of their plans forward. Cobra Commander’s plan is to eliminate the world’s nuclear weapons so that Cobra can take over the world by threatening to use its massively destructive Zeus space-based weapon. Roadblock, Lady Jaye, Flint, Snake Eyes, and Jinx team up with General Joseph Colton (Bruce Willis), the “original” G.I. Joe, to stop Cobra Commander from implementing his plan and expose their treachery to the world.
What this sequel gets right that the first didn’t was the tone and style. There are high tech gadgets and such peppered throughout the movie, but on the whole, this sequel features more visceral weaponry and warfare. No more energy weapons, no more holograms. This has a more grounded feel while still giving use a technological boost to make the story and scenarios work. Also, the CGI is vastly superior in every way. There wasn’t a single moment where my eyes caught a badly rendered shot, or witnessed anything that looked discernibly CGI. Another thing that is gotten right are the iconic characters themselves. Cobra Commander looks like Cobra Commander, and feels like a serious take on the character being a ruthless leader of a terrorist organization hell bent on dominating the world. Although, with the now slightly garbled and digitally processed voice for him, at times, it can be difficult to understand what he is saying. However, all in all, I was far more pleased with this representation of the character which never does anything to blatantly contradict who he was in the previous film. At most, it’s barely acknowledged in order to simply move forward without dragging undo baggage along.
The action sequences are greatly done giving us that tougher, more hard edged style. It feels like more straight forward military combat using recognizable tactics and weaponry. It’s all generally well shot, but the camera can get a tad too unstable with some editing that is slightly quicker than necessary. It’s a very tame shaky cam / quick cut mentality that really shouldn’t detract from your experience. This is mostly seen in the close quarters combat, or when Snake Eyes and Storm Shadow fight. That is another great confrontation that is again treated like a special attraction, but like before, we don’t get nearly enough of it. Probably the best action scene is with Snake Eyes and Jinx fighting the ninjas on the mountain side swing back and forth taking shots and slashes at each other. It’s dynamic, fun, and dangerous with plenty of smart turns. I like the touches the filmmakers threw in where some of the ninjas either miss the zip line or hit a rock formation, causing them to plummet to their deaths. It’s a very nice, smart touch that simply sells the precarious peril of the situation. I also loved the clever setup and execution of the jailbreak sequence. It had a lot of great touches that made it intriguing to watch unfold. However, the problem of this film is that there is so much action but so little plot to justify it.
And even then, the plot itself doesn’t always flow smoothly or coherently. At times, some plot elements feel disjointed and rushed. This happens in one section of the movie early on in two segments. First, we are introduced to Jinx as she trains with Snake Eyes while Blind Master, portrayed poorly by RZA, imparts some abrupt exposition in voice over that is just dropped on us without context. There’s no setup to anything he’s saying about Snake Eyes having to locate Storm Shadow and bring back to face justice for what he did to their clan. It’s just, “Where did this subplot come from? What does this have to do with the main plot of this film?” It just drops into the movie as if you missed a string of scenes somewhere. Jinx has essentially no real introduction here. She just happens to be there, and we’re just supposed to happen to know who she is. Also, once Storm Shadow is there facing judgment, a whole bunch of new exposition gets breezed through in a flash about who really killed their master and why. It’s very jarring and poorly handled as if they thought up this subplot on the fly and just crammed it into a tight corner of the movie just to have it there. Even then, how Storm Shadow and everyone else jumps around from one conclusion to the next follows no stream of consciousness. It’s implausible how they make these rapid fire connections and revelations. It’s awful screenwriting and direction. And again, RZA can’t act worth a damn. Every line he delivers just sounds terrible. So, I have no idea why they cast him in this role of a wise martial arts sensei. He puts in the worst performance of the entire movie. Yes, he is an exponentially worse actor in this movie than Channing Tatum, who actually does a better job in this film than the last.
There is also a scene where Roadblock, Lady Jaye, and Flint setup a plan to get close to the imposter President in order to confirm their suspicions and expose him. However, the scene is laid out without really understanding what their plan is. Roadblock is setup outside ready to take a shot at President Zartan after he’s lured out of the banquet hall, but it’s never understood what they plan to accomplish by doing this. This sequence came off as confusing and disjointed because there’s no setup to understand what their ultimate goal is or what everyone’s purpose is in the scene. It seems it served two purposes. One, just to clue the Joes in on who was impersonating the President, and two, to setup another action scene where Roadblock and Firefly throw down. It’s a damn good action sequence, but it was a lot of clunky screentime used up with little purpose.
The film has so much action and little plot that once we were actually in the third act, I couldn’t be sure it was the third act. The movie doesn’t ramp up to another level of tension or urgency to signal that these action scenes are any different than the half dozen we’ve already gotten in the movie. And the other problem is that I was more engaged by the villains than the heroes. I didn’t want to see Cobra get defeated. I liked those characters because they made the movie fun and entertaining. I kept waiting to get back to seeing Cobra Commander, Firefly, and Zartan conspiring about evil schemes, and having loads of fun doing it.
Now, the most I will confirm to you about Channing Tatum is that he doesn’t have a lot of screentime. I know I’m going to deserve a kick in the head for saying so, but I think the movie would have been better if he was in it more. Tatum and Dwayne Johnson do have excellent comedic chemistry that really entertained me, and made their characters really fun and exciting. This made Duke and Roadblock lively, relatable characters that I wanted to spend time with. If we had this chemistry flowing through the whole film with them teamed up and trading sharp quips, taking on Cobra with a smile on their faces, I think I would have been more engaged by the heroes. Instead, they fall kind of flat.
While Dwayne Johnson puts in a good performance, it just doesn’t seem like he was portraying a character. It just seems like Johnson being himself, more or less. There’s nothing distinct about Roadblock apart from Dwayne Johnson. I didn’t really see a character in there that had his own distinguishing characteristics or attitude. Maybe this is also a script problem, but you can watch an interview of Dwayne Johnson and he doesn’t seem any different from how he is in this role in this film or any other film he’s been in. As the heroic lead of the movie, I felt letdown. He doesn’t inject enough weight or action hero mentalities to really support this film the way it needed to be. Once he no longer had Tatum to bounce that charismatic, funny personality off of, I found myself no longer invested in Roadblock at all.
Even Bruce Willis seems like he’s just being lazy Bruce Willis here. There’s almost nothing more he does in this film than what you saw in the trailers. General Joe Colton is a bland character with no depth, no interesting qualities, and no real back story given that links him with the G.I. Joes. He’s mostly there just so they could have Bruce Willis in the movie for name recognition. I’ve never seen him do so little in a role before as he does here. What this movie needed was strong leads as strong characters with a real vibrant, passionate, gung-ho attitude, but no one here has that at all.
The rest of the Joes, aside from the always cool Snake Eyes, are throwaways. By the time the film bothers to give us any insight into who they are, I had already stopped caring about who they were. Jinx isn’t even given that much. These are characters put into the film to fill out the plot and nothing more. The script barely does anything with most of them, and the actors in many of these roles aren’t engaging, charming, particularly charismatic, or especially memorable. They were just there, and I didn’t connect with any of them.
Conversely, same as with the first movie, we get great villains that make the movie as enjoyable as it is. As I said, Cobra Commander gets the perfect makeover finally giving us the iconic chrome mask and militaristic garb. He’s given a great presence, and an intimidating driving purpose in the story. Destro is mentioned and technically seen, but Cobra Commander chooses to abandon him during the jailbreak sequence (which features a wonderfully funny and sharp performance by Walton Goggins as the warden). Cobra Commander is a great villain being very single-minded but also intelligent and cunning. He’s not the excitable, egotistical fool from the 1980’s cartoon. He is very much like a cobra – sharp, deadly, and fierce. I want to see more of him!
Although, I have to say my favorite villain here is Firefly, portrayed by Ray Stevenson. Frankly, Stevenson is a born bad ass. I have yet to see this man do wrong in anything he’s done, and he is an absolute pleasure to experience as this rugged, smart mouthed villain. Being a major fan of what he did as the Punisher, I bought into every second of his action scene abilities here. He clearly had a lot of fun digging into this character which is full of evil charisma and wit. He probably has the most action scenes to his credit in this movie amongst all the villains, and I couldn’t have been happier to see him kick some ass.
And color me impressed by Jonathan Pryce sinking his acting talents into President Zartan. Arnold Vosloo has not even a minute’s worth of screentime in this movie, and so, the portrayal of Zartan as the President falls entirely on Pryce. Like Stevenson, he was having loads of fun being this charismatic, playful villain. He is so much fun to watch, and not for an instant did I doubt he was fully into being Zartan in disguise. Pryce usually portrays rather sophisticated, cultured characters, but this gave him the chance to just chew a little scenery and be a total bad guy that was loving every minute of it. Cobra Commander, Firefly, and Zartan just make an excellently entertaining trio of bad ass bad guys.
And Byung-hun Lee does put in another excellent performance as Storm Shadow, but the story takes him in another direction than we saw before. However, it is entirely in line with the character’s history as he has switched loyalties before, but I just wish his motivations had a better build up and pay-off. This is in relation to the rushed and disjointed exposition scenes I mentioned previously. It didn’t sell his turn in the story at all to me, and I kept waiting for him to pull a double-cross to make at least one satisfying plot turn for Storm Shadow.
In terms of creative direction, tone, and style, this is absolutely the better G.I. Joe movie. It never outright contradicts the first movie, but instead, strips away what wasn’t palatable and make it a leaner, tougher action franchise. However, the plot is kind of clunky never really finding its footing, and never adequately conveying the stakes or objectives to the audience. It’s clear the characters know what they’re doing, but not often enough does the audience understand where things are going, what characters are planning, or what the scope of the threat truly is. Frankly, I think the filmmakers weren’t that concerned with that. The movie is generally fun, exciting, and technically well made, but the plot seems to exist for no more than to string a series of action scenes together. There is a main plot here that is very good, does work, and could work amazingly well if handled with more care. Unfortunately, the filmmakers just seemingly didn’t know how to utilize solid, fleshed out, and well flowing storytelling skills to make this plot fill up the movie. You could take out maybe two extraneous, if not well done, action scenes, and use that screentime to smooth out the jagged edges in the story. Use it to bridge the gaps and convey characters’ intentions as they move forward in the plot. I just never got that feeling that the plot was developing towards an apex, or that even the heroes themselves knew what the stakes were going forward. It seems the most the filmmakers felt we needed to know is that these are the good guys and they need to stop the bad guys. If Paramount Pictures really did postpone the release of this movie at nearly the last minute to do a good chunk of re-shoots, I’m not sure what they were for except for maybe a single scene with Johnson and Tatum trading witty banter over some target practice. It was a fun scene, but could’ve easily been cut. I don’t think they shot anything to flesh out or smooth out the story more because, obviously, it could still use some work. While this movie might have gotten squashed if released last summer, I’m not sure how much better it will fair in this early Spring release.
While I would recommend seeing G.I. Joe: Retaliation to an extent, I still wouldn’t recommend it above Olympus Has Fallen. That was a much better put together action movie on every level than this with an action lead that an audience could really get behind. I’ll be interested to see if this G.I. Joe sequel gets an extended cut on Blu Ray because it could benefit from some added scenes of plot and character. Ultimately, the entertainment factor for me entirely came from Cobra. When the film was focusing on the heroes, I couldn’t wait until we cut back to the villains. They were just all kinds of enjoyable because the actors were charismatic and vibrant where the heroes where one dimensional and rather bland. I mean, in a film where all of their friends and fellow soldiers are violently blown to hell, you’d think these heroes would have a fiery passion lit underneath them. You’d think they’d be ready to throwdown an all-out assault, and wage a take-no-prisoners type of war against Cobra. Unfortunately, there is no such fierce emotional drive to these heroes, and that’s what made them fall flat for me. If you just want a slew of really good action scenes, this film will deliver that for you, but director Jon M. Chu is not the most competent storyteller. Maybe there was studio interference that resulted in making changes here and there due to supposed poor test screening response. But if there’s one thing you don’t sacrifice is good storytelling. There was a really good story here, but not the right storytellers to make it good enough.
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!