29 March 2013

WHITE HOUSE DOWN

Narratives need premises, that's just how it works. Without a premise, you've just got people standing around with nothing to do. So, let's go ahead and let Olympus Has Fallen have its premise: North Korean terrorists have taken over the White House, holding the president and several cabinet members hostage in a subterranean bunker, and only one grizzled Secret Service veteran with a tortured past can save the day by methodically shooting his way through all fifty armed soldiers hunting him. tl;dr - Die Hard in the White House.

Alright, so conceded. That is the premise of the film, and if it's going to get to its intermittently entertaining second act, it needs to establish that premise in some way. And golly, is that some way just the most terrible goddamn thing you've ever seen. I am not, by any conceivable stretch of the imagination, a military kind of guy. So when I'm sitting there, watching the film's depiction of how a band of Koreans sneak their way into America, into the White House and into the bunker, and I'm thinking almost non-stop, "No, that's not right. That wouldn't happen. That's impossible. No way", then that means they are big fucking plot holes happening. Allow me to mention only the first, and perhaps most obvious: the attack is started when a heavily armored plane enters restricted airspace via Chesapake Bay and Virginia. A North Korean plane. So where the hell did it take off? Atlanta?

Compounding the generally insipid writing, the filmmaking itself is at a fairly low ebb during the initial attack, making it all the easier to notice the shabbiness of the script. It's not much of a secret that the film was pushed into production solely to beat this summer's White House Down to theaters, and the rush shows up in some exceedingly dodgy CGI - so many plumes of unconvincingly colored blood that appear to exist some considerable distance in front of the characters! - and chintzy props and sets, including a cable news station whose headline, scene in multiple shots, boldly proclaims "Terrorist Attack the Whitehouse". Which could be a subtle indication of how crazy things are, that a professional media organisation would permit two typos in a four-word phrase to be on the air for at least a couple of hours. But is almost certainly not that. This has the craftsmanship of an Asylum production because to a certain extent, that's what it is.

There are other, littler things too, like when the main character Mike Banning (Scotland-born Gerard Butler) and his wife (Australia-born Radha Mitchell) have a conversation about going on holiday, instead of vacation, and that would almost be something one could overlook if Butler's accent wasn't up and down so much throughout the movie. Just tiny details that are wrong, to go with the great huge screaming details that are quite impossible.

Indeed, the first quarter-plus of Olympus Has Fallen is so bad, in such a cornucopia of ways (including a groaner of a prologue, when Mike can save President Asher (Aaron Eckhart) but not the First Lady (Ashley Judd, overqualified for her cameo) from plunging into icy water, and so everybody is sad, 18 months later, when the Koreans come), that the fact it's able to redeem itself at all is one of the great miracles of the 2013 movie year so far. No, it's not any kind of all-time action movie classic, though given the place that genre has been wallowing in since January, it's taken very little effort for it to be by far the best action picture of the year (yes, this is better than A Good Day to Die Hard, but that's true of so many things), and it is frequently bone-stupid when it doesn't have to be, or worse, can't afford to be. But it is also, often enough that you can't write the whole movie off, sufficiently hard-hitting as an action movie that if you go in with an extremely specific set of expectations about what you want from an R-rated thriller released in March, it is likely to leave you satisfied. Butler's talents as an actor are inconsistent at best, within the film as across his career, but he's able to be menacing and throaty when it's called for, and to make it look like he truly just did end a motherfucker with a knife. Intricate character creation it's not, and he's so growly and angry that he almost manages to ruin the screenplay's handful of genuinely amusing action movie quips by playing them seriously (best line: "Let's play a game of 'fuck off'. You go first. [shuts the phone off on the bad guy]"). But as the anchor for a movie about hunting through the darkened ruins of the White House, shooting, stabbing, and punching, Butler does what he must to keep the movie functioning.

Director Antoine Fuqua doesn't do very much to make the action dance for the camera or otherwise seem like anything other than the meaty Butler pummeling and being pummeled, and we're still close enough to Skyfall that I, for one, am look for a touch more visual ingenuity in my fight scenes than just the routine fast-cutting on a rhythm. What Fuqua does well, then, is to keep the movie trotting along briskly - after the endless opening act, there's really not a single scene where it flags noticeably - and keeping up a gruff, grim attitude that is clearly the film's greatest strength; what it lacks in vitality it makes up for in intensity, and while its violence shades into nastiness a little too readily (surely, we didn't need quite such lovingly detailed post-beatdown makeup covering Melissa Leo's face after her Secretary of Defense has nuclear codes tortured out of her?), it at least has a gravity and sincerity about the effects of combat violence that a lot of American action films tend to gloss over. That, plus the always earnest presence of Morgan Freeman as the Speaker of the House/acting President, and Angela Bassett in a frustratingly little but authoritative performance as Banning's boss, and the voice of reason in a crazed situation room, buy Olympus Has Fallen at least some measure of grounded earthiness that helps to keep it from flying off the rails into total irrelevance given how ill-defined the terrorists' plot is for the most part, nor how obviously illogical, nor how fanciful (it's not worth belaboring how much North Korea is not capable of the things the movie requires it to be capable, but for serious: North Korea).

Make no mistake, the film is bad more often than it is good: at best, the setpieces have a .500 batting average, though the good ones are awfully good indeed, while everything involved more with the plot than the fighting is fairly disposable and tedious. And there's a lot of messy filmmaking, crude edits, and inexplicable shots (at one point, a shot urgently directs our attention to a portrait of Harry Truman, and lingers on it for a few frames that seem like days), all of which at least subconsciously take the wind out of the movie's sails. But frankly, anybody inclined to enjoy this film isn't going to pretend that it's anywhere near flawless, simply that the flaws don't matter. To the rest of us, the flaws matter. But the whole film honestly operates within a sufficiently circumscribed ring of mediocre competence that "flaws" and "strengths" are kind of big words to be throwing around, anyway.

5/10

16 comments:

David Greenwood said...

If "Law Abiding Citizen" had just come out, I'd see this based on residual love for that silly movie. But Butler has made some rather awful crap since then, and any movie casting Morgan Freeman as the resident wise black man has got even more to compensate for. Think I'll skip it.

Tim said...

I'll confess that the thing which disappoints me the most about OHF over-performing at the box office is that it buys Gerard Butler a few more years to pretend that he can be a romcom star. "Awful crap" is being nice.

David Greenwood said...

I was about to stick up for Gerard Butler's early work, but all the movies I could think of actually starred Russell Crowe.

Tim said...

That actually made me chortle.

He was apparently Leading Seaman aboard H.M.S. Devonshire in Tomorrow Never Dies. I say we go ahead and spot him that one.

Damian Oakes said...

Now, to be fair, Gerard Butler is at least a better singer than Russell Crowe.

Thrash Til' Death said...

It's not out here yet, but really, the premise is astronomically dumb and the CGI in the trailer looks so chintzy that I can't see myself giving it a second glance.

It's also representative of the ugly trend in American action movies to have heroes and villains both acting as avatars of their respective countries. As I understand from the trailer, Gerard Butler's primary motivation is loyalty to his country and his commander-in-chief. Regardless of where you happen stand on American foreign policy, it always rubs me the wrong way when action heroes are motivated by something as nebulous as allegiance to one nation or another. An action "hero," by definition, ought to be a unique and exceptional individual, the product of unique and exceptional circumstances. I have nothing against patriotism, but heroes who act purely as agents of patriotic fervour strike me as both reductive and contrary to the whole notion of what a fictional representation of a "hero" should be, even in a movie where the main attraction is to watch shit get blowed up real good.

KingKubrick said...

@thrash to death,

Well said. But to be fair it does sound like they tried to graft a boilerplate "redeeming himself for past fuck up" motivation to Butler's character (even though I liked it better when it was called In the LIne of Fire). I noticed the same trend, especially in Zero Dark Thirty's "I'm America Post 911" characterization of Chastain's character. And in that film they also made a pass at personal motivation with her (Spoilers) friend gets blown up thing. It was a missed opportunity that Chastain didn't look into the camera, pull off her aviators and say "This time it's personal."

David Greenwood said...

@Thrash, you're definitely on to something.

I haven't seen the film, because it looks lame, but the plot's been spoiled for me. My issue is with making the villain a rogue North Korean terrorist. Sounds like he could really have been from anywhere. Like, oh I don't know, America? Maybe his parents were in the Branch Davidian compound?

It's incredibly lazy to make NK the villains these days, since anyone with a brain knows they're only a danger to their own peninsula. But who cares, it's the only demographic that won't offend ticketgoers. A la Red Dawn I suppose.

I know evil Arabs aren't really PC anymore. Wouldn't it have been more interesting to have a homegrown terrorist instead of just picking a new group of furriners to demonize?

Thrash Til' Death said...

@KingKubrick: Yeah, you're right, it's pretty much standard practice to graft on a "personal redemption" backstory; it shows up, I'm fairly sure, in Battle: Los Angeles, the aforementioned Red Dawn remake, and the most transparent recruitment-drive picture of them all, Act of Valor. But that's just what it is, a graft. We have no reason to believe that the characters would behave any differently if it wasn't there.

I see where you're coming from with Zero Dark Thirty, but in that movie I thought it more or less works because Maya isn't necessarily "heroic," given that the question of whether her unflagging dedication to her duty at the expense of her personal life was was worth it was sort of the whole point.

@David: The whole North Koreans as villains thing is ridiculous, of course, but I'm willing to allow for it because, as a rule of thumb, plausible action movies are boring. It's not really any less ludicrous than, say, any of the last three Die Hard flicks.

No, what I object to is the unselfconscious equation of heroic characters to those who are the most selflessly dedicated to the defense of their own country. Countries are fine, I have nothing against countries. But country is only one of several factors that go into making a person who they are, and when a film tries to tell me that a person can behave bravely and selflessly purely because their country is JUST THAT AWESOME, there's a part of me that fucking viscerally rejects that.

Actually, your idea of a movie featuring home-grown terrorists would be potentially fascinating for exactly that reason. Dedication to the same country can breed conflicting agendas, and it would be refreshing to see a mainstream action movie that can be openly patriotic while still acknowledging different interpretations of a nation's identity can yield vastly different agendas.

Tim said...

@Everybody: My understanding is that White House Down features home-grown terrorists. Not the least of the reasons that I'm more excited for that movie than ever I was for Olympus.

Also, I don't know if I'd say that Butler's motivation here is plainly made out to be President and Country. Other than a few leering shots of a U.S. flag, there's not much in the movie with a more coherent message than, "Sometimes, you just gotta stab a motherfucker". If it had an ideology, that ideology would be rancid, but it's even too superficial to be anti-Korea propaganda.

That being said, I'm enjoying the hell out of this thread.

RickR said...

Tim said- "I'm enjoying the hell out of this thread."

Same here. And if you don't title your review of "White House Down" OLYMPUS HAS FALLEN, I will consider the universe officially broken.

Thrash Til' Death said...

Even as I was typing, I felt like maybe I was scapegoating "Olympus Has Fallen" a bit hard for a movie I haven't seen. Still, it's a thorny issue for me, and I wanted an excuse to sound off about it. :P

Tim said...

Oh, it's certainly an issue I think is worth fighting with. I'm just personally waiting for a more odious and less dumb movie to do it with ;)

Rick- well, of course.

Surly Duff said...

I don't know whether I should be saddened, resigned, or just plain confused as to why recent terrorism films have latched onto North Korea as the dreaded "other". I guess I can be happy they have moved away from the generic "Arab" as the nefarious threat in every movie made. The problem I have with the choice of North Korea is that the creators felt they needed to use an actual country to create the illusion of a credible threat, but in OHF and the new Red Dawn, they pick a country that poses no credible threat to the United States, and definitely not one that can pull of an invasion of the country. How am I supposed to believe that a regime that cannot feed its people, a military force that relies on obsolete Soviet technology, and although it may have nuclear capability, it does not have planes or missles to deploy that technology. And now I'm supposed to buy that they can infiltrate the White House? The only reason N Korea is even seen is a threat is because we need to pretend to take them seriously. And the fact that it provides an opportunity for morons to spout bigotry at Asians (these people are really fucking stupid, see http://publicshaming.tumblr.com/post/46685732519/wondering-what-movie-to-see-this-weekend-look-no ) makes these decisions even worse.

I think it is ridiculous that a movie featuring ninja gymsasts--"Gymnkata"--is able to create a more credible fantasy threat by creating Parmistan (which is an awesomely horrible name) than either of these movies trying to make N Korea the new USSR.

David Greenwood said...

@Surly Duff - You know what the real crime is? The recent video game Homefront actually advanced a convincing North Korean invasion plot.

If I recall correctly it involved a global economic crash, causing the US to leave South Korea and the economy. The economy of the North no longer looked quite so terrible compared to everyone else. A new Kim took over (I think this was written before Kim Jong-Il died) who was much more charismatic, intelligent, and aggressive. They successfully reunitied the Korean peninsula barely firing a shot to do so. Over the next few decades they gained economic and cultural heft in east asia formed a sort of Pan-Asian alliance flying the flag of North Korea. Eventually they fired EMPs at a USA that had by that point already practically devolved into anarchy, crippling the infrastructure, and launched an invasion with their now-massive army.

Far fetched? Certainly, but it was presented intelligently in the game as a series of small shifts, each one plausible, leading to a fascinating scenario for a thriller.

Terrible shame that everything else about the game was absolutely awful. But it can be done.

David Greenwood said...

I really wish I could edit embarrassing typos out of my comments >_<. ("...and the economy")