Olympus Has Fallen

See itIf control of the White House is ever lost to enemy forces the appropriate phrase is apparently “Olympus has fallen.” God forbid this actually happens, those words may now be misinterpreted as a reference to a Gerard Butler movie.

For the last decade America has been reluctant to blow itself up on screen, the perceived wisdom being that general audiences — heads still throbbing from a 9/11 hangover — don’t like having their sovereignty dowsed in digital kerosene and given the Roland Emmerich treatment.

As if to make up for lost time, director Antoine Fuqua (Training Day) serves up a mean dish of terrorism porn in Olympus Has Fallen aka Die Hard 6: Koreans Take the White House. Tagline: “This time John McClane really is on vacation.”

Gerard Butler works hard not to smile in a broad, humourless performance as former Presidential bodyguard Mike Banning, who saw the First Lady tumble off a snowy bridge and die on his watch.

Chance for redemption arrives when crafty Koreans execute with clockwork precision a plot to take control of Washington. They fly in and rip the city apart, then, authorities sufficiently distracted, terrorists pretending to be tourists storm the Oval office, snatch the Prez, kill and beat high-ranking US politicians and begin making demands.

Morgan Freeman steps up to the plate as acting commander-in-chief, filling a void created in political fiction since his previous gig as leader of the free world wrapped up 1998’s Deep Impact. Banning throws himself into his new role in the department of The Last Chance They’ve Got, playing games with the Koreans such as “fuck off, you first” and How to Kill Someone Using a Bust of Abraham Lincoln.

If you like the way this sounds, you’ll probably like the way it plays. Fuqua’s movie is loud, violent, silly and stitched together with B movie tropes, the sort of experience in which people regularly yell “don’t give them the code!” and action comes to a head with a detonation device that counts down to zero.

But there is something else here, a kind of post-9/11 catharsis by carnage, where violent fantasy is writ large and relegated uncomfortably close to home for American viewers — and not just in a geographical sense.

Every action movie appreciator, knowingly or not, wants the villains to win — at least for a while — if only so the inevitable victory from the good guys feels sweeter, more earned and more tangible. In Olympus Has Fallen a grim rationalisation swelters beneath the spectacle: in order to cheer on Uncle Sam’s retaliation against the forces of evil audiences must in some way have wished them to have succeeded in the first place, and 20 minutes of concentrated money shots of the nation’s nerve centre getting pulverised rattles that psychological cage in no unsubtle way.

Helpless panic-struck civilians are hit by rainfalls of bullets, the Washington Monument topples, Koreans milling about outside the White House retrieve machine guns from their backpacks and storm inside. Things explode, blood splatters and lead flies into bodies left right and centre. It’s an intensely directed sequence without that woozy Michael Bay feeling, and its impact lingers over everything.

Olympus Has Fallen has a whiff of the anarchy and carnage of The Dark Knight Rises but operates in a more contained setting, has less on its mind and is content lounging around in a conventional framework, taking deadpan comedy breathers between fisticuffs and shoot-outs. Luckily released in the thick of renewed tension between North Korea and the USA, and filling a fantastic void in 9/11 angst, the movie invariably takes on more meaning than Fuqua can attest to intentionally creating.

Matched with real-life current affairs swirling around its release (North Korean nuclear antagonism one week, Boston Marathon bomb attack the next) Olympus Has Fallen carries with it a sense of cyclical mayhem: that business is business in Hollywood, as it is in the terrorist trade; that what comes up must come down; that subsequent plotlines related to the story will not necessarily be confined to realms of fiction.

At its core this is a brass knuckle genre pic with a parochial twist. Around the edges it’s more chaotic — an unlikely riff on fear and anguish thrown in with your popcorn and coke. Uncle Sam is flogged so relentlessly, the highest echelons of American political power so graphically maimed and beaten, that when the flag is finally hoisted up the pole not even a Hollywood ending can make the experience feel arbitrary.

If Olympus Has Fallen never intended to be anything other than a loud and entertaining action movie, too bad.

Olympus Has Fallen’s Australian theatrical release date: April 18, 2013.