Wow. My expectations were pretty high when I entered into the theatre, because the trailers made this look like a pretty solid action film. I love it when my expectations are high and they are still beat.
Where to start? This film is technically perfect. I am predicting that a year from now it's going to have a nomination for Best Picture. The whole package is good. It has great directing, great acting, great characterization, great writing, great music, great pacing, great editing, great cinematography, and great action (thus championing its genre). I know that many films get praised for daring to mix genres, such as The Dark Knight. Others will play their genres straight, but tongue-in-cheek, such as The Expendables. This manages to find an extraordinary balance. It's strictly of the action genre, but it also manages to be more than that by being great as a movie.
There's a genre out there. I like to call it the Movie Genre. You won't find it in any books, and there's no rules for it. All that is required is that a movie is a really good movie, and not just good for its type. Hence, Olympus Has Fallen is a great action film, and also a great film even though it didn't bring in another genre to add appeal. Right now, that's becoming the popular thing among directors and writers who aren't secure with what they have, and it's beginning to feel formulaic. Olympus Has Fallen instead opts to master its own genre, while also proving itself in all the areas of expectation that I would have going in to see any other movie. There's nothing for me to criticize, and there's not even anything that I feel I need to forgive, as with other films that are good with what they are.
"Action movie" has always had a dirty sound to it among cinema goers, like it's a guilty pleasure. It's of an inherently lesser quality. It's something that we can't apply the same standards to, something that can never be quite as tasteful as a movie such as A Beautiful Mind. It can't be noble and can't be a fine art. Yet, a lot of suppositions I had about the genre were flipped here. Directors can make something out of an action premise alone, and turn it into a mature drama.
Without giving anything away, let me cover the beginning of the film. The title shows right away as block words against a black background, with a shot of a waving American flag visible through the letters. It's hard to describe, but the cinematography of the moment gave me a very good impression of what the rest of the film would be like, and that I was going to see more than just the best action film premise in years.
There are no surprises here, since it's clear from the trailer that the president's wife dies early on in the film, and Gerard Butler's character, Mike Banning, rescues the president instead of her. As expected, the buildup here is devoid of action. The opening scene is purely character establishment, which can be very forced, but there's a good flow, and Director Antoine Fuqua avoids overdoing it or taking cheap attempts at making the characters overly colorful. Fuqua does something very subtle, and allows the actors to simply act. They succeed, and they bring the characters to life without making them larger-than-life.
There is also a sense of momentum. Many action movies contain scenes like these because they feel mandatory in order for the film not to feel like a cheap action flick. This, on the other hand, feels necessary. There's a good reason for Mike Banning and the president to go through this. It also stays intriguing all on its own.
Skip ahead eighteen months, and there's explosive tensions between North and South Korea. Something similar was attempted in the film Red Dawn, without success. The president, his cabinet, and the Speaker of the House get together in a room, and they discuss the issue. While it doesn't feel as to-the-tee as Spielberg's Lincoln, it doesn't feel as if they took any liberties in the behind-the-scenes discussions of politicians. For that matter, nothing that happened behind the scenes in this film sounded speculative. In any case, as the various officials spoke their first lines, their names and titles were put onscreen. As a personal preference, I find this really stylish. My realization that my high expectations were being broken continued to blossom.
It's also interesting that Olympus Has Fallen was filmed a year ago, and yet its release date corresponds almost perfectly with news about new tensions between the Koreas. The way it is depicted in the movie is eerily similar, as if the script was written by a time traveler Of course, as far as tensions go, it doesn't take much to say that the fictional tensions here are similar to those in real life. It's pretty easy to imagine what North Korea looks like whenever it saber-rattles. The headlines of the movie match almost exactly the style of the headlines today, and it's a very convenient coincidence. I don't know if the movie will ever have the same impact in a year as it will today for that reason, though it will still stand as a pretty good movie for those who watch it.
The Koreans attack the White House. The plane revealed in the trailer was only a small fraction of what went on in that storming of the Bastille. In fact, I'm going to say right here and now that everything about that trailer shows only a small fraction of what goes on in this film, and the best moments are saved for the film itself. While nothing that happens in the movie contradicts what the trailer lets one on to believe, it's so much more than that. In that way, this film had a perfect trailer, because it stays true to how it is advertised, it is so good that it's better than what you can imagine it to be and you have to see it for yourself.
Back to the details of the attack on the White House, I was surprised at how much sense it made. There was a real, plausible reason for the plane being able to fly over U.S. soil without being intercepted, because in fact it was, but was adequately prepared for it. The rest of their attack is intense. Everyone has realistic marksman skills, and a lot of people die. That included civilians, which was frightening, because in most films they score low on the sorting algorithm of mortality. For a full thirteen-minute sequence of film, it had all the scale of a war movie. The Koreans had incredible strategy. It was fierce It made me afraid for Mike Banning. Because of the subtle acting skills of various characters, I was genuinely concerned about the life of everyone there. A lot of them died during some intense action. What's more, I was sickened to see the Koreans shooting every dead body they found in the head just in case. I personally would have played possum, and in that situation my genius plan would have been useless.
After that glorious raid, I really wondered how the rest of the film was going to live up to that. I was also wondering how in the world Mike was going to take care of the impossible situation the head terrorist set up, because the villain was smart, resourceful, vicious, and intimidating. Yet, it made sense that Mike could make the difference he did, since his main option was engaging in guerrilla warfare and using his knowledge of the White House to his advantage. The situation throughout movie was also in constant flow to keep up the suspense, and many times while watching it, my heart started racing, because I never really knew when the status quo was going to change. I would call a lot of these moments "plot twists", but that term implies a surprise intended to change the way a film is to be viewed, or to put a more negative interpretation of it, a cheap novelty. There were many times where I thought a large portion of the movie was going to be dedicated to one plot point, because films so often work out in certain ways, but shuffled through them and kept each scene fresh.
On the whole, when I went in faintly hoping for the coolest thing since Air Force One, or perhaps even Die Hard, as far as the action genre was concerned. Now that I have seen it, I truly believe that it was. Maybe I haven't seen enough action movies to figure out which ones are good "movie" movies, and I'm not denying that there could very well be ones that I haven't seen between now and the release of those classics. That doesn't negate the solid basis for this film.
Finally, a personal story: Some of my buddies visited Washington D.C. a few weeks ago for a political convention and watched this movie in a hotel a week before its general release. It must have been a unique cinematic experience, and I'm almost jealous of them, save for how freakishly weird it would have been. Also, one of those "buddies" is a manipulative prick who makes any group experience less enjoyable. He probably brought a political viewpoint to it when he saw it, but it's not that kind of film and it's perfectly content to leave things as "God bless America". If I did go, I would have sat next to a real buddy of mine who is a marine. Now that would have been a great experience.
God bless America!