Written by Ross Scarano (@RossScarano)
Should this exist? It’s one of the earliest questions an artist asks in the course of the creative process. The question isn’t inherently any loftier than when you ask yourself whether or not you should describe a dream to a friend. Oftentimes it’s tantamount to Would someone want to experience this? Would this be boring for the listener/viewer/reader? Sometimes, though, the stakes are greater. In the case of Olympus Has Fallen, Antoine Fuqua’s inflammatorily jingoistic and sentimentally violent new action picture about a group of North Korean terrorists taking violent control of the White House, the question should've been asked early and answered in the negative.
When the plane crashes through the Washington Monument and into the White House, the faces of the attackers appear onscreen: Asian men and women with machine guns and RPGs. One attacker executes a high kick maneuver that scans as martial arts, because, of course they’re doing martial arts to kill Americans. They’re Asian.
Essentially Die Hard set in the seat of American power, Olympus Has Fallen opens with Secret Service agent Mike Banning (Gerard Butler, of the similarly noxious 300) failing to rescue both the POTUS (Aaron Eckhart) and the FLOTUS (Ashley Judd) during a car accident near Camp David. He makes a decision and saves just the prez, which downgrades him to dull work at the National Treasury. Which is great, actually, as his new office now looks down upon the White House. When all hell breaks loose and the North Koreans siege the landmark by means of a large plane, dump trucks, and suicide bombers (just to name a few), he’s positioned perfectly to get into the building, John McClane-style.
The attack is the first sign that this is more than a bad shoot-em-up. On the day that the South Korean prime minister is visiting the White House, a large and ominous plane flies into D.C. airspace unannounced. American fighter jets can’t take it down. The large machine guns fixed to the plane gun down everything. They’re killing U.S. civilians, police officers, members of the armed services, secret service agents, and even dogs. They’re killing everything. (Luckily, Banning’s wife works in a hospital, so when the film needs to remind you how angry you should be, it can always cut back to her to, you know, announce that a 6-year-old has just been brought into the ER and she’s failing.)
When the plane crashes through the Washington Monument and into the White House, the faces of the attackers appear onscreen: Asian men and women with machine guns and RPGs. One attacker executes a high kick maneuver that scans as martial arts, because, of course they’re doing martial arts to kill Americans. They’re Asian. Later, when the dust has settled, Fuqua reveals that they’re a North Korean terrorist force. Of course.
When asked what drew him to the picture, Fuqua explained that his initial thought was, “If I could ground this and make it real, then I’d be interested in the project. I wanted to give it some substance and relevance, since terrorism is a part of our lives today.” When pressed about the implications of singling out a force from a particular (and real) country and how that might be received, he explained the focus should be on the individual terrorist and his particular motivation. He then proceeded to describe Kang in a slower, more thoughtful way than the film does. “North Korea itself is not attacking us in the film. It’s one individual with personal issues.” In the film, the fact that the lead terrorist’s mother was killed by an American land mine is a piece of information glossed over so quickly, never to be spoken about again, that it feels like nothing. Especially when compared with the national pain and suffering evoked when you show a plane crashing into an American landmark.
Meanwhile, in the popcorn-munching world of the film, the American hero is inside the White House collecting all the guns. He needs more of them, because he is one and they are many. Thus, get this man the guns. Yes, this is a film about the importance of having lots of the right firepower in case of an emergency. Given the current conversation about gun violence, the image of Butler seated in the Oval Office filling his waist with weapons is potent.