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Olympus Has Fallen

Sony Pictures // R // August 13, 2013
List Price: $40.99 [Buy now and save at Amazon]

Review by Thomas Spurlin | posted August 4, 2013 | E-mail the Author
The Film:

Imagine John McClane trapped in the White House trying to save the President (and, y'know, scrambling to prevent global warfare), and you'd pretty much have Olympus Has Fallen, Antoine Fuqua's guns-blazin' boilerplate blockbuster about a surgical foreign invasion on United States soil. To say that it's superior to the recent Red Dawn remake or the latest installment in the Die Hard franchise, A Good Day to Die Hard, isn't saying too much, but it should fill any empty voids of enthusiasm left by those subpar productions. On the other hand, what Fuqua has crafted here also insistently capitalizes on fear-mongering as blustering entertainment, where it tries to depict a siege of the United States' bastion of leadership and stability in a practical manner ... with a swath of bullets and explosions, of course. While the artillery-heavy siege itself is reasonably polished and the performances dutifully fulfill their patriotic demands, the stakes of this austere cautionary tale ultimately ring too hollow to take anything but the action very seriously.

Taking up the mantle of the roguish anti-hero is estranged Secret Service agent Mike Banning (Gerard Butler), who was dismissed from his protective detail of US President Benjamin Asher (Aaron Eckhart) after he made a tough, somewhat questionable decision in a life-or-death situation. Fast-forward a year and a half to where a stand-offish Banning has taken a desk job, struggling to maintain a healthy relationship and social life in the aftermath of the incident. On the morning of a summit meeting with Korean dignitaries, the White House comes under fire by foreign terrorists, leaving the President and his guests -- as well as the President's son, Connor -- under siege. Through a bit of happenstance and devotion to his former position, Banning finds himself as the only person with the intel and vantage point to be able to evacuate the President and thwart the motive of his captors, which revolves around the enduring overseas conflict in Korea.

Following the obligatory emotional set-up at the beginning of Olympus Has Fallen, serving as the core of Banning's reclusive attitude, the script from newcomers Creighton Rothenberger and Katrin Benedikt takes obvious cues from the likes of Die Hard, The Rock, and Speed in how a loose-cannon agent might thwart a confined and tactically-demanding act of terror. Of course, the difference lies in the setting, using the hefty security and emotional gravity behind the White House -- and the President -- as its high-stakes framework. Director Fuqua and his writers would like for the situation to appear moderately genuine, but there's a distinct lack of credibility driving some of the plans and reactions that occur, such as Banning's ability to manipulate the White House's security measures a year-plus after his "dismissal". Best to check one's brain at the blown-apart door, especially when the film falls back on its alarmist focus on the Korean conflict and the US government's iffy decision-making as the root of its suspense.

Once you've conceded to its shortcomings and a mere semblance of authenticity, there's a certain vintage R-rated charm to the way Olympus Has Fallen plays out, with nothing but a ballsy renegade's ingenuity and gradually-acquired artillery as the keys to conquering the odds in "America's house". This isn't a bright, gleeful blockbuster, either: violent beatings and public executions punctuate the siege with a grueling edge, while the potential for nuclear war breaking out hangs in the balance. What it needs is the sardonic, gruff voice of an antihero to lighten the grim tension, which Gerard Butler kinda-sorta accomplishes as Banning. Director Fuqua insists on this stern demeanor similarly to that of Training Day and his take on King Arthur, so there's only so much Butler can do with a hero in need of redemption. His moments of defiance grasp enough gung-ho sarcasm to meet those demands, though I would've dug more of the gristle he shows in Machine Gun Preacher. The performances around him are equally semi-serviceable, from Aaron Eckhart's fraught presidential composure to Morgan Freeman's brief authoritative candor as the Speaker of the House.

As Banning navigates the dark maze of the White House's corridors and the agenda of the President's captors becomes clear, Olympus Has Fallen pulls back from underlying agendas and focuses on full-throttle, admittedly cliche genre pic trappings. The pace never eases up across its two-hour span, where explosions, hand-to-hand brawls, and gunfights display the director's hit-and-miss perspective on authentic action sequences. Erratic camerawork from Conrad W. Hall and a disinterest in keeping the White House's geography perceptible -- where Banning's at in relation to where he needs to be -- don't do the film's tension any favors, but there's an element of brute force and bloodiness to the ex-agent's unplanned movement through this unconventional war zone that pick up the slack. Director Fuqua doesn't make one forget that the likes of John McTiernan and Michael Bay have more effectively telegraphed this type of material, but the noise it makes and the way it shoulders the worn-out "this man is our only hope" idea delivers more embraceable gusto than other recent spawns of the sub-genre.

The Blu-ray:

Olympus Has Fallen arrives from Sony Home Entertainment in a two-disc package -- Disc One being the Blu-ray; Disc Two being the bare-bones DVD -- enclosed in a standard butterfly case. A slipcover replicates the front and back designs with embossed letters and a multi-hued shine when held in the right light, while inner artwork evokes the fiery ambience . Sony's effort to design worthwhile home-video packages

Video and Audio:

To be frank, I've come to expect more from Sony over the past few years than what they delivered with Olympus Has Fallen, a treatment that seems more interested in just getting across the finish line instead of hitting hard on the HD front. The $70-million budgeted film arrives on Blu-ray in a shrug-worthy 2.35:1-framed 1080p AVC treatment that appears a bit flat and washed-out more often than it should, occasionally interrupted by moments of suitable clarity and depth in brightly-lit sequences (namely in the president's bunker). Exterior scenes are weighed down by a baked, noisy look that's somewhere between the director's intent and the disc's waning fidelity, while Banning's movement through the shadowy labyrinth of the White House exhibits unstable, bland contrast levels. They're counterbalanced by moments of ample detail and depth, sure, essentially whenever the camera stabilizes itself in heavily-lit sequences (the war room) or when it shifts to a cool, steely palette. But while it's a sturdy-enough Blu-ray treatment to accomplish its mission, there's room for improvement here.

Where the visuals fall, the 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio track swoops in to the rescue with aggressive, nimble action-flick effects that amply exercise the home-theater threshold. Hefty explosions and rapid-fire artillery are frequent in Olympus Has Fallen, underscored by vigorous effects that hit hard on the lower-end bass and flex some noticeable muscle in terms of clarity. Submachine guns and other firearms zip and impact against walls (and bodies) with fierce composure, while the spirited and patriotic score from Trevor Morris powers the energy with awareness of the sound effects. Dialogue remains poised and convincing as it rides along the mid-ranged tones, too. There isn't a lot of subtlety to really pinpoint here, but the moments where the film does quiet down and lets a mild sound element nail an effect -- like the snick of a blade on zip-tie restraints -- it's clear and balanced. Everything Olympus Has Fallen needs to do on the audio front, it delivers quite a payload. English and Spanish subtitles have been made available, as well as a English-language descriptive track.

Special Features:

Leading off the supplemental features is Under Surveillance: The Making of Olympus Has Fallen (11:36, HD) featurette that can be a bit deceptive at first: it looks as if it's going to be a standard press-kit feature, but it transforms into a discussion about Antoine Fuqua's diligence towards authenticity, his sources while doing do, and how he used other non-DC locales to recreate the setting. Behind-the-scenes shots and interviews with Butler and the other actors give it a standard rhythm, but the content within is a few steps above most ten-minute assembly blurbs. The Epic Ensemble (6:58, HD) follows suit in a predictable fashion by celebrating the actors involved, while Creating the Action: VFX and Design (7:03, HD) features VFX designer Evan Jacobs discussing the integration of computer-generated enhancements into largely practical scenes -- bullet damage, screen displays -- and more grand-scoped necessities.

Two other brief, simialrly-structured extras, Deconstructing the Black Hawk Sequence (3:30, HD) and Ground Combat: Fighting the Terrorists (3:02, HD), round out the substantive supplements made available here, discussing how they tried to give the visceral action in Olympus Has Fallen as much of an illusion of realism as they could. Also available are a series of Bloopers (2:26, HD) and a collection of five Previews, though unfortunately a trailer for Olympus Has Fallen isn't among those included.

Final Thoughts:

Antoine Fuqua delivers much of what you'd expect of his directorial style from Olympus Has Fallen: a serious, physically hard-hitting rush of action built around a foreign terrorist's siege of the White House, and the dishonored Secret Service agent who becomes the President's -- and the country's -- last hope. With guns blazing and patriotism running rampant, agent Mike Banning's happenstance opportunity at redemption knows how to push the right buttons on a visceral level, rendering plenty of brutal, bloody rated-R caliber violence as he works towards liberating the President from the hands of Korean aggressors. There's no avoiding how cliche or overdone the premise is, though, nor its fickle grasp on reality and over-serious heft, but the energy displayed on the surface and its consistent, dedicated stream of throwback action make for worthwhile-enough popcorn entertainment. Sony's Blu-ray could look better, but its sonic quality and a handful of brief but decent extras will make a Rental worth the time, perhaps more for pure action aficionados.

Note: Images in this review are from the included DVD presentation, and do no reflect the quality of the Blu-ray reviewed here.

Thomas Spurlin, Staff Reviewer -- DVDTalk Reviews | Personal Blog/Site
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