★★★ (out of five)Read my Letterboxd reviews the minute they happen by following me.
Antoine Fuqua's OLYMPUS HAS FALLEN doesn't pretend to be anything other than what it is: DIE HARD in the White House. The fact the actual DIE HARD franchise long ago forgot its greatest asset wasn't superstar Bruce Willis but environmental limitation, means I appreciated OLYMPUS for delivering a better sequel than the same summer's A GOOD DAY TO DIE HARD.
There's also some post-9/11 flavours here, as there is in almost every high-concept US thriller nowadays. I guess it's because what once felt like utter nonsense now has potential to feel plausible to audiences, no matter how ludicrously presented. The idea of hijacked planes crashing into the World Trade Center felt laughable pre-9/11, which is why most movies like this kept things smaller-scale or looked to Mother Nature for the big thrills... but who's laughing now? That's not to say I think North Korean terrorists are going to infiltrate the US and orchestrate a take-down of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue using a ground and air assault lasting just shy of 15-minutes. That would be absurd.
Gerard Butler plays Mike Banning; a Secret Service agent who failed Aaron Eckhart's President Asher and was removed from Presidential Detail. He gets a chance for redemption when North Koreans, led by Kang Yeonsak (Rick Yune), lay waste to "Olympus"; kidnapping POTUS and detaining his West Wing staff in the building's impregnable bunker while they try to crack the nation's top secret 'Cerberus' program and remove US forces from Korea's DMZ.
From there, it truly is 'DIE HARD in the White House'—even doing its own version of the scene where a villain fakes being a good guy to our unwitting hero. All the ingredients and clichés are there (including the asshole Army general advisor), but there are certain types of films where it doesn't matter if originality's in short supply... and this is one.
What I love about films like OLYMPUS is how there's no letup. You're in this situation from beginning to end, so there's sharp focus and clear goals to achieve. Butler's no Bruce circa 1988, Rick Yune's definitely no Alan Rickman (terrorists aren't allowed to be fun these days), but OLYMPUS HAS FALLEN earns its stripes because Fuqua's direction doesn't take its eye off the ball. It's tight almost every step of the way (although the ending's a little pat considering the huge build-up), and makes you ignore its obvious flaws. The characters aren't too strong, but the actors give it their all, and this is the best Butler's been in years. He's a capable-looking action hero, and yet because his teeth are slightly too big for his mouth he always looks slightly stupid in tough guy roles. And that works perfectly for a film like this, where everything is stupid but good-looking.
Interestingly, Fuqua was attached to the big-screen version of TV action drama 24 before quitting the failed project and doing OLYMPUS instead. It appears he scratched an itch, because this could very easily have tweaked into a great 24 movie. Kiefer Sutherland's presence and audience identification with Jack Bauer would also have elevated the whole enterprise beyond what Butler's McClane manqué could ever hope to.
Shame 24 already did the 'White House under siege' thing in its seventh season...
A movie positing that Hansel and Gretel (of Brothers Grimm fairy tale fame) grew up to become kick-ass witch hunters is fine by me, and I actually dug this film's heavy '80s vibe and quasi-EVIL DEAD sequel pretensions. There's even a version of the Hulk that goes around splatting villagers into jam puddles, which appears to have walked in from an adult version of LABYRINTH.
Coming from Tommy Wirkola, the Norwegian director of cult hit DEAD SNOW (about Nazi zombies), I think you can guess the general vibe and quality of his Hollywood début HANSEL & GRETEL: WITCH HUNTERS. It's a patchwork of ideas that ultimately don't work because of weak casting (only X-MEN's Famke Janssen leaves an impression as the main witch; Jeremy Renner continues to give very dull post-HURT LOCKER performances; Gemma Arterton just borrows Rachel Weisz's American accent while showing her cleavage), and a shoddy script that doesn't have much wit or humour.
At least the story refuses to tread water, meaning it doesn't commit the cardinal sin of being both misguided and inert.
Shame this wasn't more than a live-action '90s arcade game; all shallow ideas and a teenager's grasp of what's cool. I've seen far worse and appreciated some of Wirkola's creative decisions (real European locations, lots of practical effects), but it's obvious why this died at the box-office: it's joyless and grim (pun intended).