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I've been a house painter, dishwasher, broiler cook, private detective, military intelligence analyst, and I spent nearly 40 years as a reporter covering crime, 26 of them for the San Francisco Chronicle. These days I write science fiction, fantasy, horror and crime fiction, and I blog about books, films and crimes that don't receive sufficient attention from the mainstream media. I would like to be Elmore Leonard, Raymond Chandler, Ross MacDonald, Dashiell Hammett or George V. Higgins, but all of them are dead so I'll just stick with what I am already doing. . .

Saturday, May 11, 2013

How Petty, The Gods That Rule Olympus!

Olympus Has Fallen!
Directed by Antoine Fuqua
Starring Gerard Butler, Aaron Eckhart, Morgan Freeman, Angela Bassett

Memo to the Pentagon, the National Security Council and the Secret Service: 

Next time you're in a jam, don't bother sending in all those troops that specialize in weapons use, military tactics and martial arts; it doesn't matter whether they are SEALS, Green Berets, whatever: they are all going to be wiped out like rats anyway.

Instead, send in the one guy who can clean up the situation singlehandedly. You know which one he is: just check with HR: he's the guy who used to be in the Special Forces (Army, Navy, Air Force, Marines -- which one isn't important because they are all just so darned special), who was disgraced in his last assignment through no fault of his own and who is so insubordinate to everybody in a position of authority that it is amazing he can even hold a job.

That's the man you want. If you marshal your resources and send him in to begin with, you will save a lot of lives and narrative time. Because everybody else in your elite force is just window-dressing -- a collection of breathing warm bodies whose only real reason for existence is to serve as hapless victims who are summarily eliminated by the bad guys.

Gerard Butler as agent Michael Banning, the most insubordinate employee ever hired by the U.S. Treasury Department.

I'm sending you this memo after seeing Olympus Has Fallen! the actioner that stars Gerard Butler as a Secret Service agent who launches a solo counter-attack against roughly 100 North Korean terrorists who have seized the White House and taken the President and his top staff hostage.

These are really bad people -- we know because they are North Koreans, the guys who keep threatening to use nukes on the United States. North Koreans are made to order as geopolitical villains; after all, the country's military leaders and lunatic dictators starve their own people while their Dear Leader globe-trots with international has-beens like Carmen Electra's ex-hubbie. They send suicide missions across the DMZ even though none of those missions have accomplished anything of substance. They have exchanged nuclear technology and information with the terrorist-infiltrated military that runs Pakistan. 

So what's to like?

Of course, North Korea is a somewhat unlikely candidate to mount a successful strike on U.S. soil, let alone take over the White House. It is, after all, an isolated dictatorship whose primary infantry weapon is a Russian-designed assault rifle introduced 66 years ago; it seems to get caught every time it clumsily sends a hit squad across the border into South Korea; its guided missiles -- the ones it threatens to use in a first strike against the U.S. -- barely fly, and rarely hit what they are supposed to. 

In fact, the country's primary contribution to modern military materiel seems to be those ridiculously huge hats its officers wear: their crowns are as big as the OB beer umbrellas shading tables in a Seoul sidewalk cafe; what holds them up, only Kim Jong-un knows.

Anyway, in Olympus, the North Koreans, led by a reptilian psychopath named Kang (Rick Yune) manage to infiltrate and replace an entire South Korean diplomatic delegation that is meeting with the President (Aaron Eckhart) to discuss the latest Korean crisis. And they manage this even though the South Koreans are probably the most paranoid people on the planet and have an espionage agency, the National Intelligence Service, that boasts 60,000 employees in 37 different departments and spends the equivalent of nearly a billion dollars a year spying, primarily on North Korea.

The oleaginous Rick Yune as Kang, master plotter extraordinaire, a 21st Century stand-in for Dr. Fu Manchu.  He sought to change the world, but forgot to get Mike Banning out of the way, first. . .

North Korean terrorists launch a stealthy attack that involves a C-130 armed with cannon, the destruction of the Washington Monument, a fleet of exploding garbage trucks, a tour bus wired with TNT and the aerial bombardment of the White House. No, seriously. . .

Special Agent Mike Banning, who used to head the White House security detail but was removed from the post after he failed to save the President's wife (Ashley Judd) from death in a freak auto accident, happens to be watching from his new desk job at Treasury when the terrorists appear.  

He hustles down to 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, not only avoiding being shot to death by the terrorists but also by an army of cops, Secret Service agents and -- well -- the Army, as he races down the street waving his semiautomatic pistol and dispatching bad guys. Through some marvelous quirk of fate, he ends up inside the presidential dwelling, the last living man with a gun who isn't a terrorist.

The remaining run-time of the film is spent with Banning rescuing the president's plucky son, Connor (Finley Jacobsen), picking off the terrorists one at a time and messing with the heads of Kang and his troops.

He also serves as the eyes and ears of the hastily-appointed acting president, Speaker of the House Trumbell (Morgan Freeman, who probably spent a lot of this movie wishing he was still playing Easy Reader on The Electric Company, a Children's Television Workshop series for PBS in the 1970s. At least the dialogue on The Electric Company was aimed at slightly more mature viewers.)

The writers have attempted to make Banning a classic tough guy by putting Phillip Marlowe dialogue in his mouth, but the smart cracks wear thin quickly and Butler, frankly, just isn't the guy to deliver them.  A good example of what he has to work with: 

Says Banning to Kang at one point, "Let's play a game of 'Go Fuck Yourself,' you go first."  Ah, the incredible  wit of the Hollywood action film script writer.

Banning's job of overcoming the evil-doers is made immensely easier by the gaping holes in the plot.  For example, about mid-way through the movie a renegade ex-Secret Service man who is working with the bad guys (Dylan McDermott), is sent out by Kang to kill Banning.

Dylan McDermott gets to play another sleazy villain.  Maybe his agent could get more sympathetic parts for him if he didn't look like a sleazy villain?

Precisely how he gets out of the president's bunker under the White House is never made clear -- an egregious continuity mistake highlighted by the fact that Kang and his  key troops later have to use C-4 to blow a hole in the bunker's supposedly "nuclear-hardened" wall in order to get out, themselves.

The movie is literally loaded with howlers like this. 

Some other examples: at one point Kang and his minions can view Banning killing terrorists by using the White House closed circuit security system, but that system apparently focuses on only one hallway and the rest of the building has no cameras whatsoever, since the terrorists lose track of Banning immediately afterward.

Another gaping abyss in the plot involves entering three separate code words into a computer that controls all U.S. nuclear missiles -- the president, in fact, is being kept alive solely to get his password for the system. Yet Kang and company later use a cryptographic computer program to figure out the third code word without the president's help -- which raises the question, why wasn't the president killed as soon as the second code word was recovered from his staff?

You can get away with a perforated plot line so long as the action creditably carries the film forward, but the goofs and inconsistent characterizations come so hard and fast in this turkey that even an inattentive viewer can't help but notice them. If you doubt it, wait until you hear turncoat Dylan McDermott explain why he has been helping the terrorists by telling Banning ("I guess I lost my way.") 

I guess. Sort of like the writers who came up with this garbage. 

As is usually the case, the females in the cast are strictly Smurfettes, added for gender diversity or to be menaced by the bad guys. Ashley Judd lasts less than five minutes before she goes into a river near Camp David. Melissa Leo (who portrays a haggard Secretary of Defense) spends most of the film shrieking with fear. Radha Mitchell, who plays Banning's wife, a nurse, spends the few on-screen moments she gets staring at television cameras with a worried look.

Angela Bassett, as director of the Secret Service, is the only woman in the cast who has coherent lines to speak. Barely. And even hers are hokey.

Consider Olympus Has Fallen a warm-up exercise for White House Down, which appears to feature a very similar plotline (cop is trapped inside White House during terrorist attack, plucky kid is menaced by evil-doers, etc.) If you have the stomach for a double dose, by all means see both pictures. 

Personally, I will be skipping White House Down; I prefer Brentwood to Hollywood as my source of summer corn. 

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