What are the chances that two similar films are released within the space of a few months? I haven’t the foggiest, but it seems a shame that said films running the terrorists-capture-the-white-house formula were not released at the exact same time in order to engage in a box office weekend rumble. But fear not, reader! Now that these movies have migrated into home media territory, it’s time to pit them against each other and see which one truly is the best action romp in the Presidential Palace. Will it be Emmerich or Fuqua? Tatum or Butler? Foxx or Eckhart? There’s only one way to find out…
Ladies and gentlemen, I present to you the head-to-head clash between Olympus Has Fallen and White House Down, a face-off which I have oh so wittily dubbed Olympus House Has Fallen Down, which coincidentally could be set to the tune of “London Bridge Is Falling Down” if the need for a theme tune was to arise. Perhaps someone should make an equivalent British film with that title…hmmm…but I digress. Let’s lock and load, don a steely expression, and dive in.
The plot of Olympus Has Fallen is entirely run-of-the-mill and I really struggled to find moments that I hadn’t seen before. Bar the outlandish setting, everything is cut-and-pasted from superior action films; there’s the lone gruff hero, unwavering president, slick (foreign) antagonist, bickering bureaucrats, and the inevitable threat of nuclear war – zzzzz… The story arc of hero Mike Banning (Gerard Butler) is so dull, it can be summed as follows – disgraced, reassigned, redemption through extreme circumstances. It plays out like a drab video-game. White House Down doesn’t fare too much better with its story either, again being fairly predictable and as full of holes as Swiss cheese. Interestingly enough, while I cannot fully recall the finer points of the story (I remember it seemed too convoluted), that was not to the detriment of my enjoyment of the film. Both films are unequivocally patriotic and therefore the end outcome is never in doubt. America Wins. America prevails. Terrorists can suck it. I couldn’t help but think of Team America‘s thumping theme song, “America (F*** Yeah)”.
With narratives plagued by predictability, it’s up to the characters to make us care about their plight, and Olympus Has Fallen fails to lay down any sort of connection to the audience. It opens with a prologue that ends on what should be an emotional thunderclap. We are introduced to the President (Aaron Eckhart), his wife and son, and Mike Banning, head of the security detail tasked with protecting POTUS. It’s not long before a freak accident on the road results in the death of Mrs President, with Mike Banning (and pretty much everyone else) unable to save her. This event is there to drive the main character later on, his guilt propelling him to do all he can to save the man he let down. But I didn’t care. So short is the introduction that there’s no time to invest. The brash way of dealing with relationships continues when during a moment of calm, Banning has the chance to talk to his wife. He struggles to say anything beyond mundane chit-chat and promptly ends the conversation after she tells him, “I love you”. By contrast Roland Emmerich handles the relationships in his film a little bit better. More time is given to dialogue, and cheesy though it may be at times, it’s also funny with a fair bit of heart, exemplified in John Cale’s (Channing ‘all over your’ Tatum) exchanges with his estranged daughter. Also, Jamie Foxx’s is possibly the coolest President in cinema history, spending the second half of the film running around in a suit and a pair of fat sneakers. Not necessarily relatable, but he’s great fun and he knows what Youtube is.
These are action films, so what of the action? Antoine Fuqua really steps up to the plate to try to best the considerable credentials of Emmerich’s impressive resume; Independence Day, 2012, and The Patriot among others. He errs on the violent side, not afraid to show us pedestrians gunned down, and government officials being shot in the head. It adds nothing though, apart from the occasional wince, and is trumped by the impressive explosions. In White House Down it is very apparent that Emmerich is well-versed in blockbuster action, delivering absurd and bombastic set-pieces, the sheer stupidity of which comes off as quite entertaining. I don’t think you’ve ever seen the President firing a rocket launcher from his limo before!
Overall, it is the tone that separates these two films and contributes largely to their individual success (or lack of it). White House Down is completely tongue-in-cheek, through and through, from action to dialogue. It accepts its implausible premise and runs with it. Screenwriter James Vanderbilt, who penned the quips for Amazing Spider-man, provides equally snappy one-liners here to hilarious effect and I was pleasantly surprised at how often this film made me laugh. Olympus Has Fallen is weighed down by its pseudo-gritty script trying to be dark through coarse language while frequently missing the mark. Towards the end of the film I found myself giggling at a particularly ham-fisted line growled by Gerard Butler, and imagined the figure of Antoine Fuqua looming over me wagging an accusatory finger and telling me not to laugh at what was no doubt a cinematic work desperate to be taken seriously. I paid him no mind however, and gleefully chuckled again. The film had tried to land me with a flimsy grasp and had failed. It had lost me.
Ultimately, a serious approach to a film involving baddies occupying the president’s residence falls flat under the weight of its grizzled demeanour, while a silly over-the-top approach rises to the heights of enjoyable action romp. If you’re looking for a blockbusting good time where Americans blow up their own monuments, get your kicks from White House Down. Olympus really has fallen.