Blood is the new currency in Hollywood.
But it might be a currency that needs to be recalled. The recent crop of action movies are riff with bloodletting. However, if the lukewarm audience reaction to these films is any indication, this pumping up of the flow of blood is a plot device that needs to be seriously reined in.
When a masterful visual stylist like Quentin Tarantino approaches violence, the result is much different from how less-talented directors attempt to score points by ramping up the carnage. Tarantino advances his stories with blood and madness. Others take delight in merely offering slaughter for slaughter’s sake, more often than not throwing aside the story to mistakenly concentrate on bullets and bombs.
As action pictures continue to languish at the box office, there’s a reason for their collective failure. The message is clear. For a while, perhaps for too long a time, the idea was that the more blood that flowed in an action film the better. “Olympus Has Fallen” is merely the latest example of Hollywood’s taste for stylized bloodletting.
On the radio, over the course of the current movie season, I’ve been discussing a lot of failed action films, action productions being a dime a dozen in Hollywood. I said that cast and crew members eagerly line up for the chance to work on them. Action adventures are relatively easy to make and take in a lot of money in foreign markets. I noted that these pictures are more about “fire power than brain power.” I also commented that it’s rare that “a film relying on car chases and ricocheting bullets has anything up its sleeve other than a desire to entertain.”
All of this season’s action movies have withered at the box office, in some cases embarrassingly so. They include Sylvester Stallone’s “Bullet To The Head,” Arnold Schwarzenegger’s “The Last Stand,” Jason Statham’s “Parker,” Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson’s “Snitch,” and the fifth “Die Hard” film, entitled “A Good Day To Die Hard,” which features the tireless Bruce Willis as the always angry New York City cop John McClane.
Because I like Statham’s characterizations, which are believable and consistent throughout his films, I always enjoy his concept of what an action hero should be. I was entertained by “Parker,” which has some solid elements in it, even if the violence quotient is elevated. Johnson’s “Snitch,” which I also enjoyed, is a movie with a message — it takes a stand against excessive jail time for drug offenses — but the picture still relied on weaponry to settle scores. Regarding “The Last Stand,” “A Bullet To The Head,” and “A Good Day To Die Hard,” as well as run-of-the-mill failures such as “Gangster Squad” and “Broken City,” revenge was the by-word and bullet-riddled bodies seemed to be everyone’s calling card.
“Jack Reacher,” a carryover from 2012, also flopped, even with Tom Cruise as its star. A hugely popular character in a series of bestselling novels by Lee Child, the military-trained Reacher relishes his status as a taciturn loner. When solving problems, he uses his brains first, his fists second, and excessive, bloodthirsty violence never. With Cruise along for the ride, the fictional Reacher was unrecognizable. He was surrounded by crowds of people, resorted to typical motion picture violence, and even took part in myriad car chases and absurd crashes that belied everything author Child created. The movie Reacher broke military code time and time again. Additionally, Reacher is a mountain of man. Tom Cruise, well, not so mountainous.
It’s readily apparent that movie studios and independent packagers of action pictures have broken their compact with audiences. A sense of reality, along with a main character’s redemption, are being given short shrift. No hero can truly survive the hail of bullets we see today. A video game mentality has taken over, but it’s not working. Good dialogue is relegated to some set-up information at the start of a movie, and except for the anticipated catch-phrase, talking is then reduced mostly to swearing and “you watch that hallway,” with a few grunts and groans thrown in for good measure. Taking a head shot from a distance may seem sexy and comfortable to some, but it makes action pictures unrealistic. Strange as this may sound, it takes the fun out of experiencing the action.
The utter failure of action films these days tells us that it’s time to go back to basics. Moviegoers want to be told a good story. Characters can bleed. Characters can die. Characters can shoot all the guns they want, but if the story takes a back seat to the bloodletting, then ticket sales will reflect this. The audience has now become inured to on-screen violence. It bores them, and this familiarity breeds contempt.
“Olympus Has Fallen” has a body count so over-the-top that it’s impossible to add up. This isn’t a war movie in which casualties in huge numbers are expected. This isn’t one of Hollywood’s racist cowboys versus Indians pictures in which Native Americans are depicted as buffoons and slaughtered like targets in a shooting gallery.
“Olympus Has Fallen” is a movie that actually takes delight in the depiction of people being killed, usually in a brutal manner. It’s about the seizing of the White House by terrorists. During its repetitive 118-minutes, the murder of innocents is an overwrought and lunatic plot device that is supposed to make you hate the villains on a visceral level. The filmmakers, including director Antoine Fuqua and screenwriters Creighton Rothenberger and Katrin Benedikt, have so little faith in their movie, as well as in their audience being able to summon up its own emotional reactions to the massacre, that they slop layer upon layer of blood over everything. Tourists, government officials, secret service agents, cops, bystanders, and soldiers are relentlessly mowed down. Overkill is Fuqua’s goal. He achieves it, but this makes his movie a ridiculous and ultimately tedious exercise through which to sit.
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The story is this: North Korea wants the United States out of the Korean peninsula, and seems willing to risk certain annihilation by destroying part of the White House and holding the President and some Cabinet members hostage. The weak screenplay ignores the fact the United States is not a building or a person. The nation is the U.S. Constitution. Yes, we will care about the people savagely killed and about those held hostage, and we will care about the safety of the President. But ultimately, if the Koreans turn the Chief Executive’s residence into total ruins or take his life, the United States continues on. And it will probably destroy North Korea in the aftermath.
A comparison can be made to the much better “Air Force One,” which is about the presidential plane being hijacked by terrorists. We really care about the President in that film for two reasons: out of respect for American democratic institutions and also the fact that Harrison Ford, who plays the President in that picture, is an utterly believable action hero. In “Olympus Has Fallen,” Aaron Eckhart, who plays the president, isn’t really the action type, and he’s also an uninteresting chief executive. Yes, the writers have made him an amateur boxer, but to what end? He solves a big problem with a head butt, not with his fists.
In Fuqua’s film, everyone is shocked by the invasion, which utilizes North Korean spies, air power, a ground force, and the mismanagement of White House tours. The world watches and waits, and a good movie could have resulted. However, the world and the audience are soon forgotten because Fuqua and his writing team go straight for the folder marked: Stereotypes and Cliches. They’ve made up a typical hero with lots of inner demons and problems. This Secret Service agent is played by Gerard Butler in a manner so overly intense and annoying, that you wish he were being held hostage. With duct tape over his mouth. Butler, who hasn’t had a stellar career track since “300,” is relentlessly manic as Mike Banning, the insider ready to rescue the President.
Banning was once a valued member of the actual White House detail, but because of a danger-ridden decision he made, he’s no longer assigned there. This eats away at his manhood. Unknown to the evil mastermind of the assault (played by Rick Yune, who’s no Alan Rickman from the original “Die Hard”), Banning ends up in the White House, rip-roaring to save the day. He’ll be one man against an army that managed to do the unthinkable, but this is the what we’re dealt. In good hands this hoary premise might work. But it’s in Butler’s hands, and since he doesn’t create a believable character, he turns into a gonzo warrior eager to storm the presidential bunker. Using his knife skills, he carves up the opposition. Using his gun skills, he shoots like an Olympic marksman with his specialty being head shots that create blossoms of blood. And if neither of those work to his advantage, he’s perfectly capable of viciously strangling a bad guy. You want hideous gurgles, you got ‘em.
Banning is in contact with others in the government through his cell phone. (Those not in the White House.) He loves taking the time to show them photographs of his war prizes, meaning the dead bodies of the endless number of terrorists he’s dispatched. When he’s asked, “Is he alive” about one dead terrorist, Banning replies: “Ask me a serious question.” This is the movie’s corny catchphrase.
Everything in “Olympus Has Fallen” is obvious, some of it is trite. There are no surprises. It’s paint-by-the-numbers filmmaking. Some good performers get lost in the shuffle, including Angela Bassett as the director of the Secret Service, Morgan Freeman as the Speaker of the House, Robert Forster as the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Of Staff, Melissa Leo as the Secretary of Defense, Ashley Judd as the First Lady, Dylan McDermott as a Secret Service agent with an agenda of his own,, and Radha Mitchell as Banning’s wife, a nurse.
One of the problems with “Olympus Has Fallen” is that it seems to have been made to resurrect Butler’s fading career. He’s the movie’s lead producer. This afforded him the authority to insist that his character be the kind of man we see, which turns out to be a mistake. No heroic charm exists in his interpretation of Banning. There’s not even any invaluable sarcasm. Remember, in “Die Hard,” Willis’s McClane is an average cop who’s in way over his head. Agent Banning was a special forces operative before he became part of the Secret Service. This is a bit of a cheat. The screenwriters want us to think of him as ordinary, but he’s not. Because of that, we lose some sense of suspense.
Banning’s loner persona is par for the action movie course. A negative here is that even though there are peripheral characters, this is primarily a one-man show, which is yet another error on the part of Fuqua and his inadequate writers. Really good thrillers utilize seconds-in-command and bureaucratic functionaries to keep the energy up and the tension building. They will fret over terrorist demands. The clock ticks down. Panic lurks around the corner. The script here gives the side characters almost nothing to do except to appear worried.
The film looks cheaply made. It offers dull, often murky cinematography from Conrad W. Hall, who seems to have learned nothing from his famous cinematographer father, the legendary Conrad L. Hall. The special effects, which were outsourced to a company in Bulgaria, are not seamless, and they are often sloppy. As for the filming location, there’s no way a slapdash production can make Bossier City, Louisiana look like Washington, D.C., not matter how hard the effort.
When it comes to ugly brutality and bloodletting, “Olympus Has Fallen” opens up the floodgates. Fuqua is incapable of knowing when to cut between action and calm. The only person not dithering is Banning, but his mania is too much. Another flaw is that he seems to kill more people than were in the original assault, itself a bloodbath. And he kills so many terrorists execution-style that the film goes beyond the pornography of violence and into the realm of tedium. The excessive bloodlust bores us.
We become watchers at a circus of mayhem that lacks nuance, relevancy, and relatable elements. There can be little doubt that the movie was burnished by committee, with Butler having the final say. He saw Mike Banning as the guy to help him engineer a career boost. Somewhere down the line, it was decided that the bloodshed would be an even bigger attraction than the excessively angry Mike Banning. That was a big mistake.
Another mistake was giving the directorial reins to Fuqua, who is more adept at utilizing well-written characters, which are not available here. When it comes to action adventures, a director needs to be able to build tension. He also needs to know when to pull back, even if only for a scene or two. Fuqua is lost here and his film gets chaotic. His “Shooter,” from 2007, about a sniper and a scheme to assassinate the President of the United States, was also hampered by poor editing and scene development.
In an interesting coincidence, moviegoers will have the opportunity to compare “Olympus Has Fallen” to another film in which a paramilitary force attacks the White House. It’s called “White House Down, which is opening in June. It’s directed by Roland Emmerich. Mr. “Independence Day” himself. A man who knows a thing or two about blowing up iconic American buildings.
Email movie reviewer Michael Calleri at firstname.lastname@example.org.