In 2013, movie fans were given two movies that dealt with terrorists taking over the White House. The first of these was 'Olympus Has Fallen', which I skipped during its theatrical run anticipating that Roland Emmerich's more expensive 'White House Down' would be the superior of the two pictures. Oh Johnny, did I back the wrong horse. While 'White House Down' turned out to be another tongue-in-cheek disaster flick from Emmerich, 'Olympus Has Fallen' takes itself much more seriously and the result is a much better movie. Sure, it borrows heavily from films like Die Hard and Air Force One, but that doesn't make it any less of a taut, effective thriller.
'Olympus Has Fallen' isn't without its faults, however, opening with a silly sequence in which the President (Aaron Eckhart), First Lady (Ashley Judd), and their young son (Finley Jacobsen) are being transported in a motorcade in a blinding snowstorm. The First Family's son, Connor, is in a car with Secret Service agent Mike Banning (Gerard Butler) for no other reason than the script requires him not to be in the car his parents are in. The lead car gets hit with what looks to be a falling tree branch (even though the cars are crossing a long bridge where no trees should be), causing all the other cars to spin out of control and the President's car to wind up teetering over the edge of the bridge. Banning jumps out of his car to rescue the President, but isn't able to get the First Lady out of the car before it goes crashing onto the frozen river below. These are the kind of movie openings that make one wonder if I'll be able to sit through the rest of the film. Never mind the fact that the Secret Service would never allow the President to travel in such a storm, but even if they did wouldn't they get some salt trucks on the road for him in advance? They certainly wouldn't let the drivers proceed at the speed they do in this scene. Oh well, at least Ashley Judd is out of the way, and fortunately the movie gets much, much better.
Of course, that whole implausible opening scene is just for the purpose of getting Mike Banning off the President's detail, although he remains in the Secret Service. The movie picks up 18 months later, where it's explained that the President removed Banning from his personal guard not because he believed he did anything wrong the night his wife died, but because his presence was a constant reminder of her death. Of course, it's also a convenient way of making sure the movie's hero is outside the White House and not with the President when the bad stuff starts to happen.
The President is meeting with the Prime Minister of South Korea in the White House when a C-130 starts approaching and breaches restricted air space. A pair of jets are sent to intercept, but destroyed by the larger plane, and it quickly becomes evident that some sort of attack is underway. The President and the South Korean entourage are quickly whisked away to a bunker underneath the White House, while the plane begins to open fire on civilians in Washington, D.C. The attack also springs Banning into action, who makes his way to the White House not long after the C-130 is eventually shot down. A bus explodes nearby, and Banning almost immediately recognizes it as a distraction for a group of North Koreans to launch a ground assault on the White House. Meanwhile, down in the bunker, the President, Vice President (Phil Austin), Secretary of Defense (Melissa Leo), and others are taken hostage by a group of North Koreans led by a terrorist named Kang (Rick Yune) whose first violent act is to assassinate the South Korean Prime Minister. Among Kang's assistants are a turncoat former Secret Service agent played by Dylan McDermott.
The assault and takeover of the White House by the terrorists pulls no punches. It's violent and graphic and will leave any red-blooded American viewer feeling angry and violated. I'm sure I could go back and nitpick dozens of reasons why the attack isn't realistically plausible, but the movie makes it feel plausible and credit has to go to Director Antoine Fuqua for putting together such well-executed and tense scenes. Despite the heavy CGI use in the movie (much of which isn't cutting-edge and rather obvious), the film has very much a 1980's action picture feel to it. You know, those types of flag-waving propaganda pieces (we were primarily fighting the Russians back then in movies) that provided a high body count and didn't worry about being politically correct. If those kind of movies are your cup of tea, 'Olympus Has Fallen' is going to give you a caffeine hangover.
While the President and Vice President are being held hostage, the duty of running the country (and making the military decisions) falls into the hands of the Speaker of the House who – appropriately – is played by none other than the great Morgan Freeman, marking the second time Freeman has played the leader of the free world (although only in a technical, temporary sense here). He's joined by the director of the Secret Service (Angela Bassett) and an Army General (Robert Forster) as they try to deal with Kang's demands and direct and assist Banning's efforts to rescue the Presdient.
I'll be the first to admit that there are tons of plot holes in 'Olympus Has Fallen'. There's a big issue made over Kang needing to get three codes so he can gain control of America's nuclear arsenal, with the President, Secretary of Defense, and an Admiral (also held hostage) each having one of those codes. Nevermind that Kang took a gamble that he'd be able to take all three of those people hostage, but his threats to kill each individual if they won't give up the code makes little sense – since killing them will mean he'll never get the code. The movie sidesteps that catch-22 by having the President order the other individuals to give Kang the codes, but then the last code is obtained without the President ever revealing his – so one is left wondering why there was all the fuss to begin with. Also, once Kang gets the first code from the Admiral, he sits around for (seemingly) hours before trying to get the second code from the Secretary of Defense. Why the long delay? You'd think he'd get all three codes in the first five minutes he had the hostages…but then 'Olympus Has Fallen' would be a very short movie. I'll avoid making this review longer than necessary by skipping a discussion on the infamous 'ticking clock' that pops up once Kang does get the codes, always a sign of screenwriters who can't think of a more original ending.
But setting all those flaws and leaps of logic behind, I really, really liked 'Olympus Has Fallen', which may prove once and for all that it's more important for a film to be entertaining than it is to be believable. I would never argue with someone who hated this movie for many of the reasons I have listed in this review (and a dozen others I didn't mention), but all those problems didn't prevent me from enjoying the hell out of this flick.
The Blu-Ray: Vital Disc Stats
This Blu-ray/DVD/UltraViolet combo pack comes in a standard keepcase with a slipcover overtop. The inside of the box holds the DVD on the left and the Blu-ray on the right. The back of the slick (seen from inside the box) features a larger version of the White House being rocked by an explosion that one can see on the back cover of both the slick and the slipcover. The keepcase also contains two inserts: one containing an UltraViolet code for a digital version of the movie, and the other containing a disc registration code for the Sony Rewards program.
Both the Blu-ray and the DVD are front-loaded with an ad for UltraViolet and trailers for 'Insidious: Chapter 2', Dead Man Down, and Evil Dead. The main menu features a video montage of footage from the movie, with menu selections along the bottom of the screen.
The biggest, and really only, complaint I have about the transfer here is with the film's black levels, which trend toward the lighter side, giving the contrast throughout a slightly washed-out/light look to it. It's not nearly as noticeable during the daylight scenes, but since a huge chunk of the movie takes place during the night (as well as in dark meeting rooms or underground bunkers) it does result in an overall contrast that isn't on par with most current releases on Blu-ray.
Black level issues aside, this is a pretty good transfer from Sony. Details are decent throughout while still having a healthy dose of grain that maintains the look of film ('Olympus Has Fallen' was shot on 35mm, which is sadly becoming rarer and rarer for big studio releases). I detected no noticeable issues of artifacting, although the special effects in 'Olympus' come so fast and furious, I suppose a closer frame by frame analysis might pick up on instances that aren't as obvious when watching the film at normal speed.
Speaking of those special effects, they're not exactly Lucasfilm quality. While some are very well-done (mostly things like backgrounds where live actors are involved), others are pretty substandard for a major Hollywood release – most noticeably scenes that involve aircraft. In some of those scenes, lines around the edges of the aircraft are noticeable that some viewers might interpret as video noise and an issue with the transfer. I chalked those up to shoddy F/X, and didn't take them into account when scoring the video, as I knew going into the movie that 'Olympus' had been criticized by moviegoers for its rather obvious CGI and made the assumption those issues were also present in the theatrical presentation/source material.
The 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio is perhaps the best thing about this release. So many tracks for big action movies pump up the explosions at the expense of both dialogue and more subtle sounds, but here we have a track that is properly balanced and never overbearing.
Another frequent issue with audio tracks for action movies is that when they're mixed for 5.1 (or higher, depending on the film), they often forget about directionality when determining the sounds coming from the rear speakers. So we often get tracks with heavy rear speaker use, but no real logic behind the sounds coming from them. What I loved about the track for 'Olympus' is there's been some thought put into the track, so that when a helicopter is approaching we hear it coming from one of the rears before it swoops into one of the front speakers. The same (albeit much faster) happens with many of the gunshots in the film. The result is an fun immersive listen that really adds to both the enjoyment and tension of the film.
In addition to the 5.1 lossless track, an Audio Description Track is also included. Subtitles are available as well, in English, English SDH, and Spanish.
Filled with perhaps more plot holes than the bullet holes in the movie itself, 'Olympus Has Fallen' is nevertheless a rip-roaring, action-packed piece of good ol' Americana – headed up, naturally, by an actor from Britain. What it lacks in quality effects and logic, it more than makes up for in tension and take-no-prisoners action sequences. Recommended.