Wednesday, March 5, 2014

Olympus Has Fallen (2013) vs. White House Down (2013)

by ScottDS

Per Wikipedia, synchronicity is the experience of two or more events as meaningfully related, where they are unlikely to be causally related. The concept was first described by Carl Jung in the 1920s. The concept would also explain why we seem to get two movies with similar subject matter every other year. In 2013, it was “Die Hard in the White House.” Neither Olympus Has Fallen nor White House Down are what you’d call great, but one is just a tad more entertaining than the other.

Olympus Has Fallen: Former U.S. Army Ranger Mike Banning (Gerard Butler) has been re-assigned from the Secret Service to the Treasury Department after saving the President’s life during a car accident... and failing to save the First Lady. At the same time, the White House is hosting a delegation from South Korea. All hell breaks loose when North Korean guerrilla forces open fire on Washington D.C. and eventually take the White House. President Asher (Aaron Eckhart) is held hostage along with the Secretary of Defense and the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs. Banning leaves his office and shoots his way inside the White House. We find out that Korean terrorist Kang (Rick Yune) is behind the attack: he demands all U.S. troops be removed from the Korean peninsula, and he wants the access codes to Cerberus, a top-secret missile system. He intends to explode all of our nuclear missiles in their silos, which would turn the U.S. into a nuclear wasteland. Long story short, Banning manages to take out most of Kang’s men, stab Kang in the head, save the president, and stop the Cerberus countdown. Like I said, it’s all very Die Hard. [smile]
Look, I had pretty low expectations and the movie met them. It’s the very definition of “Sunday afternoon on TBS with nothing to do.” There’s nothing original about it but it does what it does reasonably well. Gerard Butler plays Banning and you know what? I’d follow him to the Gates of Hell. He’s no Brando but he’s fun to watch and seems like a cool guy in real life. The rest of the cast is over-qualified to say the least. Eckhart is believable as the commander-in-chief. Morgan Freeman plays Speaker of the House Trumbull who becomes acting president: at times, it seems like he’d rather be elsewhere. Robert Forster plays General Clegg, the Paul Gleeson/William Atherton/dick role, whose sole purpose is to be a thorn in our hero’s side. Angela Bassett plays the Director of the Secret Service: she makes it all look easy and there’s nothing to her performance that says, “Paycheck!” Melissa Leo is way, way, way too good to be in this movie! She plays the Secretary of Defense and her heartfelt cries of “Oh, Mr. President!” almost tug at the heartstrings. Rick Yune (Die Another Day) does a serviceable job as Kang – he doesn’t reinvent the wheel but you sure want to see Banning kill him in the end!

Just like in Air Force One, we get a traitorous Secret Service agent: Forbes, played by Dylan McDermott (Dermot Mulroney is a different person!). Yeah, he’s all friendly at the beginning, but when asked why he betrays his president and his country, his only answer is, “Globalization! Wall Street!” That’s it – take it for whatever it’s worth. Banning gives Forbes a chance to redeem himself later on but it comes across as a little too convenient. And the President has a son, Connor (Finley Jacobsen), who actually isn’t too annoying. I was afraid they were gonna do the “Bad guy holds kid hostage” thing but Banning helps the kid escape… halfway through the film! I have to applaud screenwriters Creighton Rothenberger and Katrin Benedikt (this is their first credit) for not doing the obvious... this one time. [smile] And it’s through Connor that we get necessary exposition about the White House and where certain rooms are, thanks to Banning playfully quizzing him during the opening. Look, exposition is a clunky thing – the best you can do is try to hide it. The last thing you want to do is open a scene with, “As you know…”

Training Day’s Antoine Fuqua directs and, thankfully, most of the action is easy to follow. I know I’ve said it before but geography is important in movies like this. Too many filmmakers nowadays decide to get inside their characters’ heads: “Our hero doesn’t know what’s going on and the camerawork should reflect that chaos!” Organized chaos is one thing but it takes real skill to plot out an action scene. Simply shaking the camera to create tension gets old after a while. Now we even have movies that employ shaky-cam during otherwise mundane dialogue scenes! Most of the White House scenes take place in dim interiors (the power is cut off). It’s off-putting at first, but not so dark that you can’t see what’s going on. And it’s always interesting to see how filmmakers conceive certain locations: another bunker, another command center, ad infinitum. I doubt the computer interfaces in the real White House are as fancy as the ones seen here! Not a criticism, just an observation. In movies, it’s all about instant recognition.
While there is almost a vintage 80s vibe to the movie (certainly more so than the latest Die Hard sequel), there’s one aspect to the film that identifies it as a product of the 20-teens. That is the CGI, most of which isn’t very good… but that’s what happens when you outsource your effects work to a former Soviet Bloc country! The takeover of the White House is quite exciting and quite violent, with the guerrillas mowing down people left and right, and destroying the Washington Monument in the process. It’s all CGI – some of it looks okay but most of it looks obviously fake, including the blood. And there’s a lot of blood in this movie, along with gunshots, stabbings, the works. I’m not saying this is always necessary but in a world of too many sanitized PG-13 action movies (that seem to feature everything but blood), it’s nice to go balls to the wall sometimes. Speaking of balls, this leads me to…

White House Down. I must confess that I was pre-disposed to hate this movie. It was directed by Roland Emmerich and while I’m still a fan of Independence Day, Emmerich also directed 2012, which was pure torture. I’m happy to say that this film wasn’t as offensive or sadistic as that piece of crap – it’s just plain stupid. And it features all the clichés of Olympus Has Fallen, including a traitorous Secret Service agent, a kid in distress, an over-qualified supporting cast, and bad CGI… all for twice the cost! (Seriously, while there are exceptions, it's getting harder to tell where the money is going whenever one of these big films is released!)

John Cale (Channing Tatum) is a Capitol Police officer assigned to Speaker of the House Raphelson. Cale doesn’t get along well with his daughter Emily (Joey King) but she’s excited when they get to go to the White House. Cale has a job interview with Secret Service agent Carol Finnerty (Maggie Gyllenhaal)… which doesn’t go well. While on a tour of the White House, a man detonates a bomb in the Capitol Building and a team of mercenaries starts killing people left and right and takes the tour group hostage. This movie is even more Die Hard than the former film, with a bit of The Rock thrown in for good measure. This time, the Secret Service agent is Martin Walker (James Woods, naturally), who: a.) demands $400 million as ransom for the hostages, b.) wants to avenge the death of his son who was killed in action, and c.) wants to restore America’s place in the world by nuking the Middle East. Long story short, Cale saves the president (more on him soon), saves his daughter, and yeah, I’m done now.
To the film’s credit, Woods (who is an excellent actor) gives his character a little more emotion and pathos than we usually get in these movies. And there’s even a second traitor in the film: the aforementioned Speaker of the House (played by another excellent actor, Richard Jenkins), who wants a war in the Middle East which will make his defense contractor friends happy. I like Channing Tatum (not nearly as much as my female friends do!) and he comes across as a likeable schlub stuck in an impossible situation. Gyllenhaal is fine. Jason Clarke is Stenz, the leader of the mercenaries and he’s actually pretty good – I wish they put him in a better movie. (Oh wait, they did.) We also have the no-nonsense Lance Reddick as the Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, oddball Jimmi Simpson as a Beethoven-loving hacker named Skip, and Michael Murphy (!) as the vice-president. What’s Michael Murphy doing here? He usually does classier movies like Robert Altman’s Nashville... and Woody Allen’s Manhattan… and Batman Returns!

[sigh] And then there’s Jamie Fox as President James Sawyer. I like Fox and I think he’s a talented performer… but he is NO president! He’s not channeling Obama... per se... but at the same time, he comes across as, um, how shall I put this… President… Black Guy. I can’t explain it – it’s just a vibe. An actor playing a president should give off a presidential vibe – Fox doesn’t, not for a second. The filmmakers give him and Tatum playful banter and 99% of it doesn’t work. At one point, a bad guy is reaching for him and Sawyer yells, “Get your hands off my Jordans!!” Really? I think by giving the actor playing the president too many comic relief lines, it diminishes the character. Aaron Eckhart has some playful banter with Gerard Butler in the other film, but it’s two middle-aged guys just shooting the shit, and not cheap comic relief. And no, it’s not a racial thing! Denzel Washington would make a great movie president, and Morgan Freeman already played the president at least once.
If you must know, if your favorite politician has an “R” after their name, you may bristle at a couple things, though I’m offended by the clichés. The mercenaries are all (I’m paraphrasing) “right-wing wackos,” including one who apparently blew up a Post Office because it employed too many African-Americans. (Don’t give me that look – I didn’t write it!) At one point, Sawyer asks Cale, “Have you ever heard of the military-industrial complex?” No, Mr. President, we haven’t. You’re the first character in a movie to bring it up ever! To be fair, Jenkins’ character points out that both parties benefit but it’s just one plot point among many. Sawyer’s Middle East peace plan, which would remove all Allied Forces, is what precipitates the entire thing. By movie’s end, seemingly every country on the planet agrees to sign off on it. And they all lived happily ever after.

Technically... yeah. The CGI in this film is just as bad as it was in the previous film. The model shots of Air Force One in Independence Day are actually better than the CGI shots of the same plane in this one. There’s a car chase on the White House lawn which looks horrible. Somehow John McTiernan was able to film a better car chase in Die Hard with a Vengeance and he only had one car… but he didn’t use bluescreen. He used (gasp!) real actors in a real car in a real location! Now I understand that they can’t film on the real White House lawn… but I suppose I shouldn’t complain. Quality notwithstanding, movie-making is hard work and every movie is a different beast, with its own requirements and logistical challenges. Olympus Has Fallen was able to erect a one-story White House façade on a field in Louisiana… while these filmmakers built most of their White House exteriors on a bluescreen stage in Canada.

If you must, watch Olympus Has Fallen. It’s streaming on Netflix. Don’t bother with White House Down unless you’re really curious… or you have a free rental at Redbox, which is how I got to see it. Seriously, I would’ve reviewed these movies a month ago but I was waiting for the coupon code e-mail to arrive! Rumor has it Roland Emmerich is working on a sequel to Independence Day. Abandon all hope, ye who enter here.

“The United States of America doesn't negotiate with terrorists!”

28 comments:

Tennessee Jed said...

maybe if the people behind Olympus Has Fallen had decided to pay Vince Flynn and make a film of his book "Transfer of Power." They might have actually started a new franchise in the image of a more modern American Bond ..... but they didn't. Too bad. They could have used Eric Bana as Mitch Rapp back in 2000

Voz said...

Jed- Bana or Butler would make a great Mitch Rapp...I was saddened when Flynn died last year and then Tom Clancy also...I will miss anticipating their books...
Olympus has Fallen was a much better film overall than White House Down...much more believable characters...I enjoy Aaron Eckhart's films. Fuqua makes great popcorn flicks...as well as some darker stuff as in Training Day, so he has the potential to make excellent movies.

KRS said...

I'm kinda done with movies that put presidents in Die Hard peril. I don't think it's ever been done well, even when done earnestly (Harrison Ford, I'm looking at you!). The whole trope is so phony - it always seems to rest on Secret Service men with Uzis hidden under their waistbands getting shot down like Imperial Troopers until the hero with hidden superhuman powers rises up to knock down the Sith Lords.

Are we sure George Lucas isn't ghost writting all these things?

"President" movies are better when they're more cerebral like Seven Days in May (1964). The threat to the presidency is not the demolition of the White House, but the utter destruction of our unique heritage in a bloodless coup by a dedicated, misguided, patriot. Lancaster pulls off the role of a patriot that would destroy American Heritage to save it marvelously. Yes, there's strong leftist bent in the story, but it builds tension, allows you to suspend disbelief and delivers powerful performances.

If a director is going to put a handgun or a throttle quadrant in the hands of a "president," then he should always have the Secret Service agents be college coeds in bikinis - if it's gotta be bad, it might as well be raunchy. That's a 1980's film making principle, too.

ScottDS said...

Jed -

I've read a few of Flynn's books, though I don't remember which ones. I've described them to friends as "right-wing porn... the good kind!" :-)

Every few months, I read about a Mitch Rapp movie and I'm sure there's one in development somewhere, but other than that, I've got nothing.

ScottDS said...

Voz -

Yeah, Flynn's passing was quite unexpected. Agreed about Olympus being better, but look what I was comparing it to!

ScottDS said...

KRS -

I don't disagree - the exciting aspect of these movies is seeing how bad guys infiltrate these secure locations and then it's like, "Well, now what?"

Seven Days in May is certainly a classic, and I must recommend the HBO film Path to War, also directed by John Frankenheimer. It stars Michael Gambon as Lyndon Johnson and a host of familiar faces (Alec Baldwin, Donald Sutherland, Bruce McGill, etc.). It's not an action or conspiracy film at all - just guys sitting around a table debating Vietnam for a couple hours. It's excellent.

AndrewPrice said...

Scott, I'm back! I have tried to avoid both films actually. The people involve with Outhouse Down offend me and I'm not willing to give them the chance to sucker punch me anymore. And on the other one, I'm with those above who are sick of films that involve attacks on the president or the president turning into a super hero or whatever. The whole idea is too fake.

ScottDS said...

Scott, I'm back!

"And this time, it's personal." :-)

Michael Bay, of all people, mentions in the Armageddon commentary that he hates seeing presidents in movies. (He uses the Clinton effects in Contact as an example.)...

...yet Armageddon features the president, but he's played by an unknown character actor and you barely see him. He's more of a "presence" to quote Bay.

But then he goes and mentions Bush and Obama in the Transformers films (along with a Bush stand-in in the first film), so who knows?

Maybe it's one of those things that's too real: we all know who the president is, there are countless documentaries on the White House, the Secret Service, etc... so there is a HUGE amount of disbelief that must be suspended right off the bat.

AndrewPrice said...

To me, it's pathetic writing. It's an attempt to make a movie seem more important by putting the most important person on the planet to it. Basically, rather than giving you a story and characters that interests you, they try to force you to care by giving you a character you already understand.

AndrewPrice said...

BTW, "And this time, it's personal" -- LOL! Nice! :D

ScottDS said...

Andrew -

I agree with KRS - movies with presidents aren't necessarily bad, but making the president an action hero strains credulity (and I don't care what party the president belongs to!).

(Teddy Roosevelt is a possible exception.)

PikeBishop said...

Channing Tatum. So over him, especially after that summer I spent working as his body double on "Magic Mike."

ScottDS said...

Pike -

So it was you that all my female friends were chatting about on Facebook last year? :-)

PikeBishop said...

Guilty as charged. :-)

Anonymous said...

I've seen both movies and Olympus Has Fallen was a fine action movie, both Gerard Butler and Aaron Eckhart are great in it (for this type of movie). Overall I didn't mind it at all and as ScottDS mentioned I really appreciated that they allowed the kid to be rescued and not be used later as a hostage which I was expecting, that was nicely done.

I saw White House Down a few months later and was less then impressed, they went full cliche with the father/daughter relationship (dad is out of touch and not respected by his opinionated child who knows everything, dad manages to save the day and win the respect of the child...). Channing Tatum is find in his role but Jamie Fox ruined anything good about the movie, he is too young and hip to be president and the scene with him in the limo was just so much shit I nearly turned it off.

Neither movie is a must see or would have much rewatchability, but if I was doing nothing and Olympus Has Fallen came on I might watch it, but I would not re-watch White House Down.

And I want one of these type of action movies to have a few more credible characters, in the start the bad guys are super competent and the good guys suck ass. Then the hero comes in and kills everyone by himself and he and maybe one person on the outside (who isn't running the show) who believes him and offers as much help as they can. I want the good guys (Secret Service) to be somewhat credible in the beginning, taking out some bad guys and a few of them to even live and work with the hero to help save the day for a change.

Scott.

tryanmax said...

If they can make a movie about Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter then I demand Teddy Roosevelt vs. the Werewolves.

KRS said...

ScottDS -

Teddy Roosevelt Whups the Klingons! (2015)

I would PAY to see it.

If Whedon directs.

ScottDS said...

tryanmax -

Perhaps they can be inspired by this print and make Teddy Roosevelt vs. Bigfoot!

ScottDS said...

Scott -

Re: the Secret Service, it seems that the only way to heighten the hero in these movies is to make everyone else incompetent. If I recall, the Secret Service guys in Air Force One do a semi-decent job killing bad guys and protecting Ford on the way to the plane's (fictional) escape pod.

These movies are, for the most part, still playing by the Die Hard playbook: cocky hero, ally on the outside, asshole bureaucrat, etc.

ScottDS said...

KRS -

Whedon is neck-deep in Marvel. But I'd pay to see it if Brad Bird directs!

tryanmax said...

Of course! Bigfoot is a big deal now. Roosevelt: In Pursuit of Sasquach. After his wife and mother die on the same fateful day, TR goes on a lifelong global pursuit of the real culprit: The Yeti. His hunt takes him around the world, from the Dakotas to Cuba to the wild savannahs of Africa, his secret obsession all the while masked by his ambitious politics.

ScottDS said...

tryanmax -

I'm in! (Maybe John Milius can write and direct it. He's a huge TR fan, having directed The Wind and the Lion and TNT's Rough Riders movie.)

5minutes said...

Ugh. While I could handle Olympus, neither of these are worth the price of admission.

One note: I have to wonder why we have to have Presidential movies that push a real-life political agenda. I mean - yes, there are times when Presidential movies have to focus on a political theme, especially when they're dealing with real-life characters (the excellent "Lincoln" and the oft-forgotten but excellent "Primary Colors" come to mind), but they don't always have to be political. My 2 favorite movies about Presidents really focus less on political themes and more on who the guy is. Air Force One is a great example where you have a strong President and a strong movie with almost zero real-life politics. The other is... Dave. You never know what party the President (or Dave) is - just that the President is a jerk and Dave is a good guy who wants to help the homeless, get people working and off welfare, and balance the national budget.

Where, oh, where have these films gone?

ScottDS said...

Ironically, a friend of mine just mentioned Primary Colors the other day. I had completely forgotten about that film - I must make a point to track it down one of these days.

To answer your question, I don't know. (Though I'm sure plenty of folks could find a message in Dave.) Of the two movies mentioned above, the latter pushes a message, though I'd hardly call it that: it's just cliches, pitting a dove president against hawkish enemies - nothing we haven't seen before.

I've been asking the question in your final line about lots of movies. For instance, what happened to kids' sports movies? Where is The Sandlot for this generation?! :-)

Collin Chersi said...

A most interesting analysis.

Olympus Has Fallen was much better and made my Top 10 2013 Film list. I eagerly await the sequel - London Has Fallen.

White House Down is little more than a dumb Obama Admin. propoganda film... but d--- it!! I had so much fun watching it. It was a guilty pleasure for me.

Here's what that film should have been about:

James Woods is the main character - head of the Secret Service and having served since the Nixon administration. He has become bitter and disillusioned with the way the country is being run and where it is headed. His wife has divorced him and married a member of the political opposition and his daughter has disowned him. He is not well-resepcted among the White House staff or among the Washington elite due to his principled and traditionalist outlook. Even the president holds contempt for him. It's his last day on the job and he has to train the first female Secret Service agent.

Then, a group of Iranians, aided by the Chinese and Russians, take over the White House by brute force. Now in control of the nation and the government, the invaders begin consolidating their gains and co-oordinating with their backers. Woods, badly injured in the initial attack, and his protege break away and must accomplish three things - survive each other, survive the attack and the multiple turncoats in DC, and find a way to reclaim the capital and the nation.

Constructive criticism is welcome.

ScottDS said...

Collin -

Not bad. :-) And as I said above, Woods manages to give his character a little more depth than you'd otherwise have in a movie like this.

As for the villains, I don't think Hollywood is in a rush to do Middle Eastern bad guys (for a variety of reasons). So it would have to be the Russians, since China is too valuable in the movie marketplace to offend. (See: the Red Dawn remake.)

There are plenty of dumb movies I like, but White House Down wasn't one of them.

El Gordo said...

It is a serious problem for Hollywood. All the plausible bad guys - the ones Collin mentioned - are taboo. After the IRS scandal we will probably no longer see rogue government agents either. So we get mysterious neo nazis and the military-industrial complex (which during all past reductions in defense spending conducted exactly zero coups). In the 1990s we got several movies featuring Serbian terrorists which is silly because, well, we haven´t encountered any. In fact they used Serbs or South Africans and now mainly comic book villains because it is safe. It´s just harder to root for the good guys when they are up against tobacco industry death squads.

Apparently in the current movie Non-Stop the bad guy is the whitemale son of a 9/11 victim. I haven´t seen it. It may be ok, but the supposed cliche (it´s the muslim!) would actually be more shocking these days.

By the way, is Morgan Freeman really in everything now? Why is he never the villain? He must be crowding out lots of talented actors.

ScottDS said...

Gordo -

I'm just noticing your comment now! Yeah, I can't disagree. As liberal as I am with some things, I'll also be the first to say no group should be off-limits.

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