WASHINGTON – When 9/11 happened, all anyone could say was that it was like something out of a movie. That’s because our only memories of crumbling skyscrapers and exploding government buildings were from Hollywood blockbusters like “Independence Day” (1996).
Today, in our post-9/11 movie world, the line between horrific reality and safe movie escapism is becoming increasingly blurred, as foreign militants continue their threats and domestic terrorists shoot up movie theaters.
And so in 2013, the year after the world was supposed to end, Hollywood gives us two attacks on the White House. They have identical plots of a Secret Service agent saving the president from a hostage takeover. They also have comically similar titles: “Olympus Has Fallen” and “White House Down.”
The former opens today, telling the tale of Mike Banning (Gerard Butler), a former Secret Service agent who left the job after a car crash killed the First Lady (Ashley Judd). A few months later, he must rescue the president (Aaron Eckhart, aka Harvey Dent) from a group of North Korean terrorists who pose as members of a South Korean envoy during a diplomatic visit to the White House. They capture the president, defense secretary (Melissa Leo) and other cabinet officials, taking them to a bunker beneath the White House and leaving the speaker of the House (Morgan Freeman) to serve as acting president with his top Pentagon officials (led by Angela Bassett).
Plots like this gin up the popcorn fan inside us, as we relish the vicarious experience of watching a “what if” disaster unfold, while knowing the lights will eventually come on and everything will be okay.
“We can show your imagination what we never want to happen,” said director Antoine Fuqua (“Training Day”) at the film’s D.C. premiere in Georgetown.
“There’s an emotional connection to these wonderful symbols that represent our freedom, liberty, honor and what we’re about as a country. So to watch them be destroyed and taken down by terrorist bad guys, it obviously affects you in an emotional way, as opposed to fictional buildings we made up.”
In this light, there is much fun to be had in “Olympus Has Fallen,” as CGI crashes topple the Washington Monument and Butler kicks just as much terrorist ass as Bruce Willis in “Die Hard” (1988). As Butler judo chops each militant into submission, I was reminded of the “300” (2006) line, “This is madness,” to which Butler shouts “Madness? This is Sparta!”
The problem I have with the movie is how little support he’s given by the other characters. While Butler runs through terrorists as a one-man wrecking crew, the Pentagon officials are helpless and indecisive on the other end of their walkie-talkies. Even Morgan Freeman, the former film president (“Deep Impact”), is handcuffed by a script that treats him like a “Shawshank” prisoner. I wanted to shout at the screen, “Get busy living or get busy dying, but do something!”
You don’t take out al-Qaida by yourself. The war on terror is a group effort. And for this reason, I couldn’t totally buy into the flick. Fuqua seems unsure as to what type of movie he’s making. Is he doing a realistic military/intelligence thriller like “Argo” and “Zero Dark Thirty,” or an escapist romp like “Independence Day?” We’re set up to believe the former, only to dive hard the other way into the “gates of hell.”
“A lot of it is heightened reality,” Butler candidly admitted at the D.C. premiere. “That’s a bit of a tall order, to be honest, that the South Korean prime minister didn’t actually realize that five of his guys were terrorists, so you stretch the truth a bit.”
Fuqua should have taken Denzel’s “Training Day” advice: “You wanna walk your baby (cajones) around the block, you won’t make it to the corner, but if you’re cool, *if* you’re cool, then you’re a hero. You’re a virgin shooter above suspicion.”
Fuqua is no “virgin shooter.” His career has two distinct strains — plots about street crime (“Training Day,” “Bait”) and plots to kill the president (“Shooter,” “Hunter Killer”). He is capable of excellence in both — if he has the right screenwriter. In “Shooter,” he had Jonathan Lemkin, who proved his chops in “The Devil’s Advocate” (1997). In “Training Day,” he had David Ayer, who wrote and directed one of last year’s best movies in “End of Watch” (2012).
If “Olympus Has Fallen” feels like it was written by first-time screenwriters, it’s because it was. Creighton Rothenberger and Katrin Benedikt offer their debut effort, but let’s not give up on them just yet. The young writers show promise with both dialogue zingers and clever setups and payoffs. As Butler describes White House booby-traps, he says, “If they enter the front door, they’ll be ringing the doorbell pretty loudly.” And when a government turncoat delivers a blow to the president, he references the opening boxing scene at Camp David: “Keep your guard up.”
Unfortunately, the over-the-top plot gets away from them, as can easily happen in the disaster genre. This isn’t a slight against escapist action. “Independence Day” was an epic summer blockbuster not just because of its July 4 marketing campaign, but because its White House explosions were backed by a believable team effort between an eloquent president (Bill Pullman), his top general (Robert Loggia), a vibrant fighter pilot (Will Smith), his stripper wife (Vivica A. Fox), a genius computer hacker (Jeff Goldblum), his cigar-smoking father (Judd Hirsch) and a screwy local yokel (Randy Quaid).
If you loved “Independence Day” as much as I did, let’s wait a few months for “White House Down,” directed by Roland Emmerich, the man behind “Independence Day” (1996), “Godzilla” (1998), “The Day After Tomorrow” (2004) and “2012” (2009). This type of movie is in his wheelhouse.
“Olympus Has Fallen” may have won the race to the theaters, but “White House Down” could win the war. The latter has the writing edge, thanks to screenwriter James Vanderbilt, who wrote the engrossing murder mystery “Zodiac” (2007) and the surprising superhero update “The Amazing Spider-Man” (2012). The casts are evenly matched, but the stars of “White House Down” have the hot hand after some of last year’s best movies: Jamie Foxx (“Django: Unchained”), Channing Tatum (“21 Jump Street,” “Magic Mike”) and Jason Clarke (“Zero Dark Thirty”).
It’s impossible to compare the two without having seen both, but release dates can say a lot. One is getting a March release in the faded afterglow of the post-Oscar doldrums, while the other arrives June 28 at the height of the summer blockbuster season. It’s clear which one Hollywood thinks will do better. Here’s hoping.