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Olympus Has Fallen was a better experience than I anticipated. Antoine Fuqua’s film received mediocre reviews so I was not prepared to pay for it; fortunately I got a free ticket and it turned out to be good fun. As is often the case, low expectations led to a pleasant surprise as the film is far from awful. It is no masterpiece and has plenty of problems, but it is an entertaining piece of action cinema.
I would summarise this film as the missing link between Die Hard (John McTiernan, 1988) and Air Force One (Wolfgang Peterson, 1996). As in Air Force One, the President of the United States and senior members of his cabinet are taken prisoner by VERY EVIL terrorists. As in Die Hard, only one man stands between the VERY EVIL terrorists and even greater disaster. Air Force One had the conceit of this man being the President himself; in Olympus Has Fallen, the lone hero is Secret Service Agent Mike Banning (Gerard Butler), while President Benjamin Asher (Aaron Eckhart) must the inflictions of Korean supremacist, Kang (Rick Yune). None of this is a spoiler as it’s all in the trailer.
Olympus Has Fallen is very much Die Hard in the White House, due to its confined setting and internal/external conflict. Banning used to be on the President’s security detail, but was removed when he saved President Asher but allowed the First Lady (a momentary Ashley Judd) to die – saving Asher is Banning’s redemption as well as his duty. Further parallels appear as Banning moves through crawlspaces in the walls, has to contend with a helicopter attack mounted by his supposed allies outside, the VERY EVIL (I’ll stop now) terrorists’ heavy artillery, some interchanges with Kang that (poorly) echo Bruce Willis and Alan Rickman’s banter in Die Hard, and even a moment when he encounters an enemy who pretends to be an ally. If the last two Die Hard films hadn’t been larger scale it would be easy to see John McClane in Banning’s position. This does appear to be the premise in 2013’s other film about the White House going down, entitled, imaginatively enough, White House Down. In Roland Emmerich’s film, Channing Tatum is a Capitol policeman touring the White House when it is taken over by terrorists and only he can save President Jamie Foxx. Perhaps it’s best that Willis never got there, there’d be nothing left for Tatum and Butler.
Not that Banning is simply McClane with a vaguely Scottish accent and a quarter of the wit (like Fuqua’s previous efforts Training Day, King Arthur, Shooter and Brooklyn’s Finest, Olympus Has Fallen is very serious). Part of Banning’s arsenal is his familiarity with the White House and its security, so the required suspension of disbelief is not as big as it could be. It is still pretty big though, as the terrorists (who know everything) target a secret nuclear strategy to unleash hell on earth; the Pentagon action committee (headed by a rather wasted Morgan Freeman) make every wrong decision except to occasionally trust Banning; a heavily armed plane opens fire on Washington, gunning down the jets sent after it as well as dozens of civilians on the ground.
I enjoy action movies very much, and indeed rate Die Hard as one of my favourite films of all time. There is a thrill in the spectacle of blazing guns that only just miss our hero, and generic conventions give us confidence that he will save the day. Despite this confidence, action cinema only works if there is tension and suspense. We may be confident that the hero will survive, but how? When Banning needs to get Connor Asher (Finley Jacobsen) away from the terrorists, will he wait them out or fight his way through them? How many of the hostages are expendable, and how many are necessary for Banning’s redemption? There are also stylistic considerations. As I argued in relation to Safe House, constant shaky-cam completely undercuts any tension. Fuqua favours steady cinematography; pans, whips, and tracking shots propel the action, while close-ups and fast editing convey the danger. Suspense like this invests the viewer in the action, which is heightened whenever a significant character dies.
How people die though is interesting. Many of the deaths in Olympus Has Fallen are very bloody, as civilians as well as numerous Secret Service agents are gunned down, many of whom we have got to know a little. Indeed, during the assault Banning is left alone as his friends die around him, and close-ups on his face allow us access to his grief. There are scenes of pain and suffering, as we see blood-stained bodies and several victims dying in agony. Kang obtains vital information from his hostages through torture, including a very ugly scene in which he punches and kicks Secretary of Defence Ruth McMillan (Melissa Leo), whose injuries and agonised screams of defiance are palpable. The physical emphasis of Olympus Has Fallen begins in the opening scene with Asher and Banning boxing, and many of the interpersonal clashes are brutal, not least the final, largely unarmed, fight between Banning and Kang.
This emphasis on physical action with associated embodied pain and suffering seems less common than it used to be. Historically, when movie characters were shot they coiled into a ball with a pained expression and then collapsed. Under the Hays Code, this was an acceptably sanitised way to present death on screen. With the withdrawal of the code and introduction of the MPAA rating system, New Hollywood saw more explicitly violent movies gain prominence, such as Bonnie and Clyde, The Wild Bunch, The French Connection, Dirty Harry, The Godfather and Taxi Driver. These were not action movies per se, more westerns and crime films, but their success demonstrated the audience’s appetite for destruction.
The model for modern action films was fine-tuned during the 1980s, with the high concept approach favoured by producers like Jerry Bruckheimer and Don Simpson. Directors like Tony Scott and James Cameron as well as actors such as Arnold Schwarzenegger and Bruce Willis became household names as a result of various loud, flashy, high concept action movies which could earn revenue through ticket sales, video rentals and, perhaps most importantly, merchandising. Many of the action films from this era were very violent, such as The Terminator, Commando, Predator, Lethal Weapon, Tango & Cash, Cobra, Nico and Hard To Kill as well as, of course, Die Hard. I knew these were violent because I saw them in video rental shops in the 90s and they all carried 18 certificates. In the US they were R, but the more stringent BBFC would have no thirteen or fourteen year-olds seeing such things (my first 18 certificate at the cinema was Se7en, and I was sixteen at the time).
Many of the prominent action films of the 90s, such as Terminator 2: Judgment Day, True Lies, Speed, Die Hard with a Vengeance and The Matrix, only warranted a 15 in the UK (although there were exceptions, such as Face/Off). Stronger stuff was needed to qualify for an 18 certificate, which was largely the province of gangster films, such as Casino, The Usual Suspects, L.A. Confidential, and in the 21st century other titles including The Departed, Training Day and Drive, as well as horror films like Saw and the torture porn cycle. Action films were largely embraced by the 12A category, especially with the growth of the superhero genre. The X-Men, Spider-Man, Avengers, Dark Knight and Hellboy franchises largely received 12A certificates, as did other blockbusters including Transformers, Inception, Avatar and Oblivion, not to mention contemporary-set action films like the Jason Bourne and Mission: Impossible franchises, and the seemingly unstoppable James Bond.
I was keen to see Olympus Has Fallen because it was awarded a 15 certificate, which seemed unusual for a film like this. Why would it be unusual, I thought? Is this level of violence and profanity that rare? Reflecting on the last decade of Hollywood action cinema, I realised it was, since the introduction of the 12A certificate in the UK. Recently, A Good Day to Die Hard was submitted to the BBFC and awarded a 15 certificate. The studio recut the film and resubmitted it in order to receive a 12A certificate, which increased the size of its audience. The same happened in 2012 with The Hunger Games as well as Taken 2. As a result, in recent years there has been a dearth of a certain kind of macho action film. In order to reach a wider audience, films are distributed with little explicit violence or strong language and minimal sexual content.
What is striking about these films is that, while they feature plenty of action, the emphasis is more often on the spectacle of scale than of death. Characters certainly die, but our attention is quickly drawn to something larger, often a digital creation such as a giant robot or an alien creature. We marvel instead of recoil, the action aesthetic has moved in the direction of “Wow” rather than “Ow”.
This change of direction has marginalised the macho action movie, where MEN are manly in their swearing, shooting and fighting. Nostalgia for 80s-style action has fuelled The Expendables franchise, as well as Sylvester Stallone’s return to Rambo and Schwarzenegger’s The Last Stand. These films emphasise guns and bodies, rather than technological spectacle, and seem quaint and curiously niche.
Olympus Has Fallen emphasises physicality, yet much of the action is digital, especially the aerial assaults both by the terrorists and the Navy SEALs who attempt to retake the White House. This is clearly practical – create a completely digital Washington and you can have as much destruction as you like without having to pay or wait for the disruptions you cause in the city. Yet this sits uneasily with the emphasis on down-and-dirty physicality. In an interview with the BBC, Butler commented that he was left very sore after filming the climactic fight scene, which seems at odds with the CGI sequences.
Olympus Has Fallen falls into a peculiar niche of action films for non-family audiences. Action cinema has moved away from the graphic spectacle of pain, as this restricts audiences. That said, there is clearly still a market for harder action, which need not be serviced by Hollywood – the most intense action film in years was 2012’s The Raid from Indonesia. The Raid is a little different for being a martial arts film, where the emphasis is still very much on physicality and digital sequences are less frequent. For Hollywood action movies like Olympus Has Fallen (and perhaps White House Down), there remains a tension between the grit of physical action and the wonder of digital animation.
I’ve been posting recently on my top and bottom films of 2012, and realised I had been remiss earlier in the year. Two films in particular impressed me in their own ways and are contenders for my top ten, so I thought it only fair to give them mention. Both are smaller films, rather than the major blockbusters I’ve discussed recently. I enjoy the mainstream, and seeing the full facility of cinema through big budget blockbusters and studio prestige films are among my favourite movie experiences. The division between “mainstream” and “independent” is vague and indeterminate, and sometimes used nonsensically, not to mention inaccurately. I have heard references to Clint Eastwood as an independent filmmaker, which is absurd as he is a Hollywood institution, whose films are always funded and distributed by major studios, usually Warner Bros. Similarly, the world’s most successful independent filmmaker is George Lucas, who could also be regarded as the epitome of Hollywood. If considered from a more analytical industrial perspective, the distributors of the films under discussion here are still related to major studios, so the division is unclear.
Not that it matters, as the quality of a film and one’s appreciation of it is not determined by who funded or distributed it, but by what is in the film itself. Speaking from an auteurist position, as I do, one of the giants of New Hollywood back in the 1970s was responsible for my favourite comedy of the year, Killer Joe. William Friedkin won the Directing Oscar for The French Connection in 1971, and went on to direct The Exorcist two years later. He has never come close to the heights of that double whammy in the last forty years, but continued to make striking and interesting films (Bug), as well as some turkeys (Rules of Engagement). Killer Joe is one of his successes, a pitch black comedy that is funny if you are prepared to laugh at its unflinching depravity. Complaints about Killer Joe focus on all the characters being unsympathetic if not downright repulsive, which they are. I question though whether being nasty is reason to criticise, as horrible characters can still be well-rounded and compelling. To call the central family of Killer Joe white trash would be a compliment, as they are more the vermin that feed upon trash, but I was nonetheless intrigued to see what they did next.
My interest was held largely by commitment, from the script, the direction and some very fine performances. Emile Hirsch and Thomas Haden Church convince as a couple of idiot rednecks, Gina Gershon balances sultry with embittered, and Juno Temple conveys sweet naivety and disturbing sexuality. 2012 was the year of Matthew McConaughey’s renaissance, with acclaimed performances in Killer Joe, Magic Mike and Bernie, receiving an award from the New York Film Critics Circle for Best Supporting Actor for his performances in the latter two. I did not see those, but found his performance as the titular polite psychopath in Killer Joe to be both chilling and amusing. McConaughey’s stony expression and slow Texan drawl lend themselves well to perfectly controlled menace. As with other characters in 2012, the sound of the voice is central to the dangerous aura of the character. Tom Hardy demonstrated the menace of his voice twice, famously as Bane in The Dark Knight Rises (although his voice was clearly altered in post-production, so maybe that shouldn’t count) and then in the lower profile Lawless, in which he pulled off the remarkable feat of appearing dangerous while wearing a grey woollen cardigan. A key element of Hardy’s menace was in his voice, a low, indistinct mumble that nonetheless conveyed clear authority and willingness to do harm. In Skyfall, Javier Bardem’s almost liquid tones emphasised his relaxed attitude towards his murderous enterprises. McConaughey’s sardonic vocalisations were perpetually chilling, especially as he spoke in much the same tone whether discussing his assassination fee or about serving tuna casserole.
Killer Joe is based on Tracy Lett’s play of the same name, and its final scene especially retains the script’s stage origin. The escalating horror of this scene demonstrates the script’s conviction to deep levels of depravity, and Friedkin’s commitment to the story is demonstrated by the maintenance of the scene’s length. Films based upon modern plays often shorten scene length, either through outright cutting of the script or fast editing. When the length is retained, as in Killer Joe and also Doubt, the scenes are noticeably longer than those written specifically for the screen. The maintenance of the final scene’s length increases the tension and indeed the horror of what may be the worst family dinner ever. The commitment to the revolting events that unfold aids the power of the scene, and yet a twisted sense of humour is still present. This is integral to Killer Joe’s success as a piece of cinema: the film presents humiliation and abuse, but with just the right level of wit. Not laugh out loud funny, but still amusing if you have a strong stomach.
If Friedkin is a known if somewhat diminished directorial star, Gareth Evans is an utter unknown. This anonymity worked to his advantage in his contribution to cinema this year, the Indonesian The Raid. Having never heard of Evans until buzz about The Raid started, I was not sure what to expect. What I got was the most blistering, dizzying, dazzling, delirious action film I had seen in a long time. The combating characters flew as light as feathers yet struck with bone-crunching force – I lost count of the number of times I winced, ducked and said “Ow! Ow! Ow!”
I am not well-versed in martial arts cinema, The Raid being one of only a smattering of such films that make it into mainstream western cinemas. It was also the only foreign language film I saw at the cinema in 2012. I am keen on all films, but foreign language fare tends to be restricted to art house cinemas, and at least in Norwich, the art house cinema is more expensive than one of the multiplexes. Unfortunate but true. The upside is that a film like The Raid felt wonderfully fresh and different. This is not to disparage western action cinema, which can provide visceral thrills very well as The Avengers and Skyfall did this year, but The Raid added some variety. Whereas the wuxia genre of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, Hero and House of Flying Daggers provide balletic myths of martial arts beauty, The Raid was down, dirty, brutal and unforgiving, combining physical stunts with blazing guns and swinging machetes, to create an immersive and enthralling experience.
The Raid’s power is a combination of martial arts choreography and filmmaking. I would describe the choreography as exquisitely channelled chaos: fists and feet flying in all directions could be chaotic and confusing (and in reality probably would be), but with the right choreography, it becomes a marvel of organisation. This can be presented as something elegant and even serene, especially if slowed down as in the films of Zhang Yimou. Evans, however, keeps the action fast and the cutting intimate, conveying a sense of velocity and impact. As I have discussed previously, tension is key to action sequences, and build-up is crucial to tension. Tension in The Raid comes in a variety of forms. At one point, the protagonist Rama (Iko Uwais) hides in a wall cavity with an injured comrade. The gangsters searching for them repeatedly stab a machete into the wall, only just missing our heroes. This scene is extremely tense, the tension exacerbated through extreme close ups of the characters’ faces as well as the massive blade. During actual fight sequences, the combat is continuous yet tension is increased as the violence escalates. Why punch your opponent once when you can do so seven times and slam their head into a wall, just to make sure they’re incapacitated? Several stand-out fight sequences are not only highly involving, but carry major stakes as these are important characters, particularly Mad Dog (Yayan Ruhian) VS Jaka (Joe Taslim) as well as Mad Dog VS Rama and Andi (Donny Alamsyah). These fights go on far longer than human endurance would actually allow, but realism is not on the agenda here. The agenda is to show people fighting in creative and elaborate ways, and make us feel every punch, kick, head-butt and blow from an improvised weapon (my personal favourite: a shattered strip light).
The Raid could be criticised for having a plot summed up in the tagline: “1 ruthless crime lord. 20 elite cops. 30 floors of chaos.” This is unfair, as The Raid also features betrayal, corruption, loyalty, abjection and duty. While its main selling point is incredibly talented practitioners of pencak silat, The Raid has the bonus of an engaging protagonist in Rama, some sympathetic characters, and a villain in Tama Riyada (Ray Sahetapy), complete with psychotic henchman Mad Dog, worthy of any Bond or superhero film. While many of the characters are cannon fodder, I nonetheless cared when the cops were hurt or killed, because Evans made sure to keep the PAIN on-screen. Visceral cinema can simply draw one along with the action, much as Joss Whedon does in his bravura long takes like the climactic battle in The Avengers. Evans’ approach is more brutal, as the impact of each blow is clear. Sound adds a great deal as well, and the smack of fists and feet, not to mention the burst of skin and the breaking of bones, aid the film’s immersive thrill. While 2012 featured many stunning sequences, nothing matched the sheer physical thwack of The Raid.