Time has not been kind to Antoine Fuqua. Over a decade ago, he became an Oscar-caliber filmmaker (for whatever that label is worth) after Training Day vaulted him into mainstream prominence on the back of its gritty violence, no-nonsense artistry, and mesmerizing performances; in between then and now he’s output nothing but a handful of mild hits (Brooklyn’s Finest) and flops both small (Shooter) and large (King Arthur). Is his fall from grace an example of success eating a director alive? Was Training Day just an anomaly in an otherwise middling filmography? Giving credit where it’s due, Fuqua’s descent isn’t really due to lack of trying, but the trajectory of his career has been on a constant, steady decline since 2001.
That’s where Olympus Has Fallen comes in, and where another question is raised: does this Under Siege/Die Hard riff have what it takes to put him back on the map? The answer comes in the form of another query- who cares? Olympus Has Fallen does not by any means constitute hard-hitting filmmaking, but damned if it doesn’t have that action movie je ne sais quoi that lets it straddle the line between trumped-up solemnity and goofy fun. You will not walk out of the theater feeling closer to your fellow man or having learned deep truths about the human condition. But you will see Gerard Butler kill North Korean terrorists for a couple of hours while Morgan Freeman hems and haws in the background. Take that as you will.
Coincidentally, Butler has lost nearly all of the currency he earned in the wake of 300‘s massive box office earnings six years ago. Maybe Olympus Has Fallen is a better comeback picture for him than Fuqua, though. Frankly, Butler doesn’t need to do anything more than a convincing Steven Seagal impression and look great unleashing hell on legions of enemies, so the fact that he’s genuinely likable is a pleasant surprise. His role, that of disgraced Secret Service agent Mike Banning, doesn’t demand real acting bona fides, just grunting masculinity and a capable hand at cracking the occasional one-liner; Butler obliges by brute-forcing his way through every single scene, striking a fine balance between playing it straight and playing to his audience.
Banning’s taking back the White House, commando-style, after an attack by a North Korean paramilitary squad leaves the most well-protected place in America a burning, smoldering shambles. It’s his redemption story; in the film’s opening sequence, he’s faced with a disaster scenario and ultimately chooses to rescue President Ben Asher (Aaron Eckhart) instead of the First Lady (Ashley Judd), who plummets to an icy demise. In the present, Banning works a desk job and seethes with frustration over his dismissal, but that doesn’t stop him from manning up when America’s freedom is threatened and democracy is at stake.
If that sounds absolutely ridiculous on paper, it’s even more so in practice. In a manner of speaking, Fuqua has essentially made a compilation film that employs every single action movie cliche in the book, a best-of joint that in other hands might have been an immediate magnet for critical derision. Every element drips with straight-faced, testosterone-fueled, oblivious absurdity, even down to the character names. They’re the details you’d expect people to have in a chest-thumping, pro-America movie where the US of A kicks butt and prevails over fear and tyranny in the face of nuclear impotency; by design, they convey the macho obstinance embodied in the spirit of our country.
But there’s a catch in all of that: the film works. Fuqua’s playing with genre tropes, and he knows exactly what he’s doing; through his efforts, Olympus Has Fallen is shaped into a wholly watchable, spectacularly dumb piece of patriotic popcorn entertainment. Who would have thought? There’s a sense that Fuqua’s having the time of his life behind the camera, utterly relishing the lowbrow tough-guy material from moment to moment as he wreaks havoc on Washington DC and obliterates the seat of our nation’s power. Strange that it’s taken him this long to find a project he can let loose with; stranger still that it was worth the wait.
Part of what gives the film punch is Fuqua’s insistence on ratcheting up levels of violence. There’s no need for him to document in graphic, bloody fashion the sight of countless civilians and beat cops being mowed down mercilessly by a gunship soaring over the city streets on its way to the White House; we don’t have to watch the Washington Monument crumble, symbolically destroying the US’ manhood and crushing tourists en mass. But Fuqua clearly thinks that we should, and all of that carnage hits with visceral impact, no small feat as a good chunk of it is badly CGI’d. Olympus Has Fallen might lack brains, but it makes up for it by never holding back in its action set pieces. Fuqua not only manages to outdo the lion’s share of the year’s action offerings to date- especially the latest entry in the aforementioned Die Hard franchise- he makes it look effortless, too.
At the end of the day, that still means we’re watching an updated version of the xenophobic, jingoistic, one-man-against-many shoot-’em-up pictures of the 80s and 90s. That’s a very specific cup of tea, and if it’s not to your taste then Olympus Has Fallen has no chance of winning you over. But that’s okay; films like this come with built-in audience, and besides that Fuqua’s clever enough to blend blatant flag-waving and prejudicial overtones into a self-serious but gloriously dim cocktail. It’s impossible to take this film at face value, and that’s the best thing it has going for it.