Holiday Shopping Guide for Action Flick Fans: “Olympus Has Fallen” vs “White House Down”

Olympus Has Fallen poster from IMDBWhite House Down poster from IMDBThis is the time of year for egg nog, decorating the tree, hanging mistletoe, and braving the cold and the crowds to find that perfect gift for your friends and family. To that end, this year I’m going to give you all a holiday shopping guide to help you find the perfect Blu-Ray or DVD for the action movie fan in your life.

Specifically, I am going to clear up some of the confusion you may find when browsing your local department store. As you look through the “Action” aisle, you will probably notice that there are two movies that look like they are basically the same movie. Both are about terrorists attacking the White House and kidnapping the president, with one lone secret service agent stuck behind enemy lines who must save the day. Olympus Has Fallen was released by Millennium Films and directed by Antoine Fuqua (Training Day, Shooter). White House Down was released by Columbia Pictures and directed by Roland Emmerich (Independence Day, 2012).

Why in the world did two groups of people wind up making movies with an identical premise in the same year? Who knows? All that matters, though, is whether the movies are any good. Time to compare them side-by-side to see which one is better!

The Tone and Style

It makes sense that when you take the same premise but interpret it in different ways, one of the most important differences is the tones and styles of the different directors. For Olympus Has Fallen, Fuqua chose to make his movie dark, serious, and gritty. He does not shy away from violence or brutality, and does a pretty good job showing realistic shootouts and fight scenes. It’s clear that Fuqua wants his movie to call back to some of the most famous violent and gritty action movies of the 1980s, like Die Hard or the early Rambo movies.

Olympus Has Fallen image from Collider

It’s also clear that this movie has a love of guns, military hardware, special ops protocol, and command-and-control procedures. Maybe the goal was to make the film feel as real as possible, but it pads out the running time with long stretches where we just see soldiers in full combat gear doing soldier-y things like chatting on the radio and looking at the enemy through their sniper scopes. I appreciate the idea, but after not too terribly long, these sorts of shots get boring and repetitive. Maybe fans of the Call of Duty games might enjoy this stuff, but I felt like it was an unnecessary distraction.

White House Down image from Ashvegas

White House Down, meanwhile, goes in the exact opposite direction. The name of the game with this movie is “campy”. This film has some of the silliest, most ludicrous moments I’ve seen in a movie in a long time, and that’s from a guy that reviewed Thor: The Dark World. I mean, some of this is “Adam West-era Batman” goofy. At one point, this movie’s president fires an RPG from his presidential limousine. Really.

And the dialogue! The first half-hour or so of this movie has some of the most embarrassing dialogue I have witnessed. I repeatedly covered my face in disbelief, thinking, “Did they really just say that?” I’m not against campy by any means, I sometimes like campy movies, but it can be overdone.

Edge: Olympus Has Fallen. As much as I think they go on too long with the Call of Duty stuff, the realistic and gritty tone is, for the most part, well-handled. Emmerich’s idea to turn his movie into goofy, campy action schlock could have been fun, but he just takes it a bit too far in some places.

The Characters

For the most part, I like movies where things blow up. However, one thing I have found is that you can throw as many explosions on the screen as you want, unless I have a reason to care about the characters, it will all turn into a big, boring blur that I have no emotional investment in.

Are you listening, Michael Bay?

Are you listening, Michael Bay?

How do the characters in these movies stack up? Well, Olympus Has Fallen stars Gerard Butler as Mike Banning, a Secret Service agent who used to be a part of the president’s protection squad, until one fateful night when he had to make a split-second decision to save the president and as a result indirectly killed the First Lady. He was transferred to a desk job, until one fateful day when he happened to be on the scene when terrorists attacked the White House. That sounds like a whole lot of baggage for him to carry, and might have made for an interesting character arc. Instead, it is only briefly mentioned a handful of times, and mostly has no relevance to the plot. Banning spends most of the movie as just “generic action hero”, single-handedly taking down the very same bad guys that defeated the rest of the Secret Service because of course he does. He’s just a body to fill a role, not somebody that feels relatable or real.

In fact, almost all of the characters in Olympus feel like cardboard cut-outs. The villain has no other personality than “generic action villain”, and the other characters feel like they’re just there to move the plot along. In fact, it’s worse than that: in multiple instances throughout the movie, the characters make bone-headed, indefensibly stupid decisions that only serve to push the plot along and raise the stakes. Time and time again, the president (played by Aaron Eckhart) and Speaker of the House (Morgan Freeman) actually just straight-up give the terrorists what they want. It smacks of lazy writing.

As campy as White House Down is, at least its characters have actual personalities. They feel fleshed-out and complex, with interesting personality quirks and believable motivations. Well, apart from one obligatory “child-in-danger” character performed by Joey King, who comes across throughout the film as more annoying than anything else. Still, for the most part I found myself actually invested in the trials and tribulations of the characters in White House Down.

Down‘s lead character is John Cale (Channing Tatum), a man applying for a job at the Secret Service on the day that everything goes down. Unlike Olympus‘s “generic guy”, Cale is actually a believable hero in that he is torn between trying to save his daughter or trying to save the president, ultimately trying to do both and repeatedly failing at both. It also helps that his character has good on-screen chemistry with President James Sawyer (Jamie Foxx), with some truly funny banter between the two. Even the villain, played by James Woods, is a fascinating and unpredictable character that trades one-liners with his minions.

Edge: White House Down. Campy as it may be, I’d rather watch a movie with personalities than cardboard cut-outs.

The Politics. Oh, the Politics.

Obama and Boehner image from The Telegraph

I suppose you can’t have an action movie about terrorists capturing the White House without at least having to give lip service to politics. Your villains have to have a motivation, right? On the other hand, once you bring politics into your movie, you open up a closet full of gelatin that will come crashing down on your film. Your audience won’t separate the political stance your movie ends up taking from the actual film as a whole any more than you can get gelatin out of your carpet.

How did each movie address this issue? Well, Olympus plays it as safe as humanly possible. The president, Speaker, and other politicians that this movie depicts are just empty shells. Are they Republicans or Democrats? Where do they stand on the issues? This movie won’t say. The closest hint we get is a quick, throwaway line about the president’s connections to Wall Street – but politicians have been accused of being in big business’s pockets for generations.

Even the identities and motivations of the enemy is as vanilla as it comes. Early on, it is shown that tensions are high between North and South Korea. Well, tensions are always high between North and South Korea, nothing new there. The event prompting the attack is a visit by the Prime Minister of South Korea, and all the assailants are Koreans. Is this all a North Korean plot? After all, I think there are few countries as “safe” to portray as the villain as North Korea.

"Don't they just look friendly?"

“Don’t they just look friendly?”

But even that isn’t the case – it turns out the villains are part of a completely separate, fictional Korean terrorist group not affiliated with North or South! Gosh, I don’t think they could have played it safer if they tried!

Again, White House Down proves to be the polar opposite. Rather than play it safe politically, Down embraces the political angle. From the very opening, when we are first introduced to President Sawyer, and we are told that he is fighting an uphill battle to get some magic world peace treaty signed, it is abundantly clear that this is a caricature of the President Obama that liberal Americans hoped they were voting for back in 2008. Oh, and then it turns out the villains are all paranoid right-wingers and white supremacists in league with the military-industrial complex.

Seriously, bro?

Seriously, bro?

Edge: Olympus Has Fallen. I’m sorry, but White House Down seems to almost revel in the knowledge that it will offend some people’s political leanings. There are times and places to be openly political, but in this case I’d rather take the safe route.

Is it Entertaining?

At last, we come to the most important question of all. The point of an action movie is to entertain, excite, and thrill its audience. Do these movies deliver?

In the case of Olympus Has Fallen, the answer is clear: NO. Absolutely not.

Olympus is a boring, confused mess of a movie. It is plagued by terrible dialogue, lazy writing, and long stretches of nothing worthwhile going on. It is formulaic to a fault. Its characters are empty-shell non-personalities, who are also apparently idiots. It was about as cliché as it gets. Not even the presence of Morgan Freeman is able to save this dud.

What about White House Down?

Actually, in spite of the overly campy tone, the embarrassing moments early in the film, and the blatant politics, I still liked White House Down better. The writing was much more clever, the characters were much more memorable, it was clear that everybody was putting in their best efforts, and Jamie Foxx in particular seemed to just love this role. I actually remembered the characters’ names in Down; I had to look up the names of Olympus‘s characters. Now, what does that tell you?

Edge: White House Down kept me engaged and invested, while Olympus just bored me. I guess I’d rather laugh at a bad movie than be bored by it.

So, which one should I buy?

Neither.

Ultimately, these are both terrible movies. They are terrible for different reasons, to be sure. Olympus is just a paint-by-numbers action film with no heart. Down is over-the-top schlock that seems to revel in how silly it is. Yes, if I had to watch one again it would certainly be White House Down, but just because it is a better film than Olympus doesn’t make it a good one.

I simply can’t recommend either of these movies. Maybe you should just get your friend or relative Iron Man 3 instead.

One Response to Holiday Shopping Guide for Action Flick Fans: “Olympus Has Fallen” vs “White House Down”

  1. Pingback: The Fault (and Success) in Our Hollywood Adaptations | Cat Flag

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