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In the pantheon of spy movies, there have been some impressive set pieces that take place in public bathrooms. Mission: Impossible – Fallout adds to this legacy with an inventive and visceral sequence that incorporates needles, laptops and various methods of unarmed combat with basins, mirrors, pipes and cubicles. The scene is typical of the film as a whole: gripping, visceral and intense, as writer-director Christopher McQuarrie delivers a ruthlessly efficient script and muscular direction. The plot, unusually for this franchise, follows on from the events of the previous instalment. Ethan Hunt (Tom Cruise) is haunted by his past missions, especially memories of his wife Julia (Michelle Monaghan) and malevolent adversary Solomon Lane (Sean Harris). When the remnants of the Rogue Nation pursue weapons grade plutonium, Ethan and his team of Benji Dunn (Simon Pegg) and Luther Stickell (Ving Rhames) are given the mission (should they choose to accept it) to intervene, and lumbered with CIA observer/assassin August Walker (Henry Cavill). From this set-up, intrigue, disguises and quadruple crosses abound, amid an array of quite astounding set pieces. The M:I franchise has prided itself on ever-escalating action sequences, and in the contemporary era of superhero exploits, it is impressive that this sixth instalment pulls off scenes with heft and physicality without the benefit of superpowers. Curiously, several of these scenes appear to re-stage sequences from previous films. The aforementioned bathroom scene echoes True Lies and Casino Royale, while a mountain climbing sequence recalls M:I II as does a motorbike chase, which is also reminiscent of similar chases in Rogue Nation and Skyfall. Speaking of sky fall, in the movie’s bravura set piece, McQuarrie flexes his stylistic flair, as two characters perform a sky dive in a continuous take, the viewer spiralling and tumbling along with the figures on screen. It is a breathtaking sequence with a genuine sense of peril, and one of the finest action set pieces this year. There is also emotional turmoil to match the physical, as themes of regret, guilt and responsibility pulse throughout the narrative, while the convolutions of the plot ensure that one’s brain is engaged as well as guts, leading to a film that is exhausting on an emotional as much as a physical level. As a result, despite these missions running for over twenty years, I would certainly choose to accept further ones.
For Part Two of our tour through my favourite filmmakers, I turn to that great divisive figure who attracts adoration and revilement in equal measure; he who has pushed the boundaries of film technology and created some of the most indelible images of recent cinema history; he who has been the target of great scorn and derision for his crass and offensive cinematic crimes against humanity. I refer, of course, to David Cronenberg. Sorry, wait, David Cameron. No, no, that’s wrong – James Cameron. Got there in the end.
James Cameron is probably the director whose work I enjoy most consistently. It is very hard for me to pop in a DVD of any Cameron film just to watch a bit of it, because I end up watching more, and more, and before you know it I’ve watched half the film (more if the scene I particularly wanted to see was early on). I think this is central to why I love his work – the flow of images and continuity is so fluid that I want to be carried along with it. For me, that is one of the chief joys of cinema. Cameron has (not unreasonably) attracted much criticism for his simplistic plots, archetypal characters and (apparently) bad dialogue, suggesting that he is not a sophisticated writer of stories. He is, however, a superbly cinematic storyteller, demonstrated by his constantly roving camera, smooth editing and highly detailed mise-en-scene. As I’ve mentioned before, plot, character and dialogue are not major concerns for me – I am an intensely visual cinematic consumer and if the visual elements work for me, I am a happy viewer. I won’t say that Jake Sully (Sam Worthington) in Avatar is a three-dimensional character, or that Jack Dawson’s (Leonardo DiCaprio) line “you’re the most amazingly, astoundingly, wonderful girl, woman, that I’ve ever known” is the height of romantic poetry (but then again, Jack isn’t exactly a poet, he’s an uneducated street artist, so at least his dialogue is consistent). But these are not problems for me – Cameron makes absolutely gorgeous films that explore themes which interest me, including gender, vision, technophobia/philia and age-old questions of identity and humanity.
Picking my favourite Cameron film would be tricky, and I have posted on both Titanic (1997) and Avatar (2009) previously (twice in the case of the latter), which I adore and admire in equal measure. Therefore, if I were to introduce a newbie to a Cameron film, where to start? Despite his prominence, Cameron is hardly prolific, having directed only eight films in a career spanning over thirty years. Nor is he happy just directing, as Cameron has written all of his films and produced most of them as well, as well as editing a few. As his career has progressed, the budgets as well as the box office receipts of his films have expanded exponentially, and this has led to sometimes justified descriptions of his films as baggy, bloated and excessive. This started with The Abyss (1989), and continued through Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991), True Lies (1994), Titanic and Avatar. While Cameron’s films have steadily progressed in terms of technological innovation and jaw-dropping spectacle, it is easy to be cynical about such grandeur. Therefore, as introduction to Cameron’s oeuvre, I would pick the film he regards as his debut, having disowned Piranhas 2: The Spawning (1979). The introduction Cameron film is, of course, The Terminator (1984).
Shot for a mere $6.5 million, The Terminator is a lean, mean entertainment machine, that delivers blistering action sequences and a stark, tech-noir vision. It is also unremittingly bleak, which also makes it unusual in Cameron’s oeuvre. From The Abyss onwards, hope and optimism is a recurring theme, and even Aliens (1986) is a (just about) successful survival story. But in The Terminator, there is no escape, the trope of relentless pursuit extending beyond the eponymous cyborg. Brad Fiedel’s electronic score continually returns to the ‘Terminator Theme’, its percussive bass line ostinato expressing the relentless advance of omnipresent technology. Most tellingly, the theme returns in the final scene of the film, after the Terminator (Arnold Schwarzenegger) has itself been terminated. Sarah Connor (Linda Hamilton) is really the central character, around whom the entire narrative revolves, pursued across time by both the cybernetic assassin and her saviour/lover Kyle Reese (Michael Biehn). But even after their deaths, Sarah left with John Connor growing inside her, the relentless pursuit continues, the Terminator theme playing as Sarah drives towards storm clouds. These represent the coming apocalypse, the war between humans and machines which is still coming, relentless and unstoppable. Subsequent instalments and Cameron’s career may have provided more hopeful futures, but The Terminator remains as pitiless and remorseless as its eponymous character, truly the nightmare that won’t end.
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.