Review by Ken Burke Olympus Has Fallen
North Korean terrorists manage to storm the White House and take the President hostage, leaving only 1 Secret Service agent to save the day (can you guess the end?)
Based on the true story of an Australian Aborigine girl-group family who built a career on entertaining U.S. troops in Vietnam in the late ‘60s. Great soul music soundtrack.
The connective tissue of this week’s review, as clumsily indicated by my title, is an allusion to something that seems easily engaging on the surface but contains more substance underneath (especially a substance that may not be all that enticing, as is grilled—or even worse, fried—liver for me [I’ll take the onions but you keep the meat or at least pass the ketchup which was my salvation when my mother used to cook that gunk because my father liked it—or grind it into liverwurst, which magically changes the whole experience]), just as these 2 movies may just seem like casual escapes from reality based on their previews but point to more serious considerations upon their encounter in the theatre (even more so with The Sapphires, which explores the overt racism faced by these young Black women back during the Vietnam War era along with what the trailers focus on, but given current events there may be more than meets the initial eye in Olympus Has Fallen as well). With Antoine Fuqua’s action thriller, Olympus …, the seriousness comes from the actual saber-rattling going in North Korea, even as I type this review, seemingly orchestrated by that country’s newest Supreme Leader, Kim Jong-un (but I’m not sure how much of this is really his policy and how much is him being front man for his military advisers), with threats of nuclear missile attacks on Hawaii, Los Angeles (so I guess I’m far enough north in the San Francisco area unless his missile guys don’t aim very well), and even my old hometown of Austin, TX (I can’t help but think that this guy’s somehow got it out for me personally as he’s targeted my current residence territory, my intended vacation destination this summer, and even my former habitat as if somehow he wants to eradicate all traces of my existence [he also included Washington, D.C. on his hit list so I guess that means I won’t be running for President in 2016. Damn!]; now, that’s taking negative reactions to my film criticism to an extreme if you ask me, or maybe I don’t make enough basketball references for him—I’ll work on that, but it’ll have to wait until baseball season is over so hopefully we’ll be safe until then, although in case we all get incinerated before I finish this review I’ll go ahead and reveal that the North Korean terrorist in Olympus Has Fallen gets his butt kicked in the end, just so that’s recorded for future generations). Although Fuqua has a good number of not-so-well-known works to his credit, most audiences would remember him (if at all) for directing Denzel Washington to his unnecessarily-long-delayed Best Actor Oscar for Training Day (2001); if you crave that sort of nastiness and brutal violence then Olympus Has Fallen will likely please you quite a bit as all sort of things explode (including large hunks of the White House), the body count piles up very quickly, and the fate of the free world literally depends on the killing skills of our Secret Service Agent protagonist, Mike Banning (Gerard Butler). The other serious aspect of this film, beyond Leader Kim’s itchy trigger finger, concerns how feasible it might be for such an attack in D.C. to succeed, resulting not in the immediate killing of our President (here the fictional Benjamin Asher, played by Aaron Eckhart) but more chillingly the use of the hostage situation to extract concessions that would destabilize everything we like to assume is fully under control as we drift peacefully off to sleep each night.
As if attacking the White House and capturing major figures of the U.S. government doesn’t give us enough to worry about in Olympus Has Fallen, there’s also the problem of Agent Banning having lost the confidence of his Commander-in-Chief because of an incident at the beginning of the movie where the Presidential entourage is headed from Camp David for a social event on a dark, snowy night during the end-of-year holiday season when a freak accident leaves the President’s car dangling from the edge of a bridge. Mike manages to get POTUS (to use Secret Service lingo for the First Gentleman [well, if his wife is the First Lady …]) to safety but spouse Margaret Asher (Ashley Judd, in what turns out to be a very brief cameo except for family photos in the background later) drops to her death in the icy river. After that Mike is transferred to desk duty so that Pres. Asher doesn’t have to see him again and be reminded even more of his loss, although he and Mike had a close relationship, which extended to First Son Connor (Finley Jacobsen) as well. Mike’s former career arc has now ground to a halt, along with his enthusiasm for the job, although he maintains his loyalty to his assignments much to the increasing chagrin of his nurse wife, Leah (Radha Mitchell), who’s always coming in second-best to that damned job. That will all change on a fateful day a few months later when the South Korean Prime Minister comes to visit the White House, whereupon all hell breaks loose.
While the evil Kang (Rick Yune), who masterminds the nefarious plot, isn’t portrayed as a direct agent of the now-belligerent North Koreans (I guess that even months ago when this movie was written and shot we didn’t want to get young Supremer Kim upset) he’s the usual international mastermind terrorist of plots as serious as this one and those of a more freewheeling nature such as the regular James Bond bent-on-global destruction villain (in fact, Yune has taken on Bond as Zao in Die Another Day [Lee Tamahori, 2002]). Kang carries a grudge against the U.S. because of circumstances that led to the death of his parents when he left North Korea as a child so now his master revenge plan is to force the President to withdraw U.S. troops from South Korea and remove our Seventh Fleet from the area so that North Korea can overrun the South; Kang also wants the 3 holders of a secret code (President, Secretary of Defense, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff) for the Cerberus system, which can neutralize U.S. nuclear warheads to prevent any attempt on our part to retaliate against North Korea, to divulge their prize secrets. Pres. Asher encourages the other 2 to give up their codes in order to save their lives (Kang is brutal toward them in trying to extract information, especially Defense Secretary Ruth McMillan [Melissa Leo]), given his own determination that he won’t crack (you need all 3 codes to activate the system), especially after “Iron” Mike (to borrow the name of a noted wrestling villain from the 1950s-‘60s, father of the even more famous Ted DiBiase of WWE’s “Million Dollar Man” fame from the 1980s-90s and grandfather of current WWE star Ted DiBiase [Jr.]) manages to sneak into the occupied White House,
establish communication with both the outside defense forces and the hostage center in the internal bunker, and get Kang’s chief trump card, Connor, out of the building where he can’t be used as the ultimate threat to break the will of his father. Whether you buy into all of this or not depends on how viable it seems to you that rogue terrorist agents could infiltrate the South Korean Prime Minister’s inner circle to accompany him on this trip and that dozens of well-armed terrorists could be waiting patiently in the streets of Washington, D.C. ready to launch their well-timed attack just as the baddies inside the White House grab weapons to begin the well-timed maneuver (somehow Fuqua got privy to the information that it would take 15 min. for a military assault team to respond to such an attempted takeover—I hope he didn’t find it in a Google search for “How to Capture the White House”), supported by carefully-placed snipers in armored vehicles, explosions, and a well-armed aircraft that creates its own havoc, possibly as a diversion, possibly as a gamble on a successful frontal attack such as the one that damaged the Pentagon on 9/11/01 (although in this case air defenses take it down, but not before it lops off the top of the Washington Monument). All in all, this movie is a horrible argument for our normal security systems to be capable of withstanding an assault of this magnitude, which may all be just “dramatic license” invention for the sake of a very effective (albeit destructive) scene of attack and occupation but still gives us pause as to what strategies we have in place to thwart such an actual assault, an aspect (along with pondering the intentions of that dribble-freak in Pyongyang [Leader Kim, that is, not “cultural ambassador” Dennis Rodman]) of the “liver-lurking-under-the-ice-cream” metaphor (the more I think about that, the more disgusting it gets) that informs this whole review.
I have to admit that as the climax built to a crescendo, with Agent Banning taking out the terrorists one-by-one via his stealth maneuvers, failed rescue strategies orchestrated by Speaker of the House/Acting President Allan Trumbull (Morgan Freeman, in charge of everything again after playing God in Evan Almighty [Tom Shadyac, 2007] and Bruce Almighty [Shadyac, 2003] and U. S. President Beck in Deep Impact [Mimi Leder, 1998]), and the destruction of the terrorists-demanded escape helicopter with seemingly all on board (but really just a Kang-orchestrated diversion, sacrificing most of Kang’s forces and the remaining hostages [except Secretary McMillan who escapes via another diversion from Kang that is thwarted by Mike] so that he can use one last threat against the President to extract that last nuclear-neutralizing code but this time it’s not really a threat as much as a final act of devastation as he sets all of our bomb-carrying missiles into detonation mode in their silos so that they’ll essentially destroy our entire country—Kang’s even more thorough than Leader Kim, in that Kang’s plan will also take out Galveston, where I grew up, along with Austin, where I was born and later returned for university work; I guess I’m going to have to move to Antarctica to get away from these guys), Olympus Has Fallen is a very impactful attack on your senses. Mike’s not going to let this last doomsday plan come to pass, though, as he single-handedly takes out the remaining killers (fulfilling his promise to Kang that the last thing he’ll ever feel is a knife to his skull), gets a stand-down code from the Acting President’s team (At the Pentagon? If so, the location eluded me.), and stops U.S.A. Armageddon by just a couple of seconds (making it even more hair-splitting than when James Bond’s colleague disarms the bomb that’s about to blow Ft. Knox—and Bond—sky-high with only 7 seconds left [007 on the counter, of course] in Goldfinger [Guy Hamilton, 1964]). So, all’s well that ends well (although those constantly-on-call-cleanup-crews that have to reconstruct Manhattan and Gotham City [essentially the same place in different comic-book universes, although Manhattan has seemingly been split into its darker and lighter aspects of Gotham City for Batman and Metropolis for Superman] after various monsters attack various superheroes will certainly need to be shipped down to D.C. to put the Oval Office, Lincoln Bedroom, etc. back together again), as the bullet-ridden American flag that was so brazenly tossed to the ground by the terrorists is replaced with a new one and Mike returns to chief agent on the Presidential detail. Along the way we also have Angela Bassett (left in the photo above) in a very-occasionally-meaty role as Secret Service Director Lynn Jacobs and Dylan McDermott as Secret-Service-agent-turned-terrorist-enabler Forbes (Who’s steamed about something ideologically so he’s willing to trash the entire country. And you thought Rush Limbaugh was dangerous?) who growls convincingly in a couple of scenes before Mike brings him back to his senses and kills him (not necessarily in that order), along with CSNBC commentator Lawrence O’Donnell playing a fictional news anchor who gets a couple of on-camera lines, plus enough others in the total cast to populate a small town.
The way the plot lines spin toward the end you may not quite get which military codes are necessary to do what (but the countdown to destruction is sort of like War Games [John Badham, 1983]) or you may think the White House has been destroyed more effectively by a different sort of aliens (in Independence Day [Roland Emmerich, 1996]), just as you may follow a lot of conventional commentary in recognizing the story of the lone crusader saving the day (as in Die Hard [John McTiernan, 1988]), but even with all of these past associations and the demanding sense that somehow justice must triumph despite all of the tragedies (even though Constitutional protocol is stretched by having both the President and the Vice-President [Charlie Rodriguez, played by Phil Austin] at the same White House meeting allowing both of them to be captured, all of which works out poorly for the hardly-identified VP who is killed along the way, just as respect for Acting President Trumbull’s decisions is also suspect, given that he does decide to pull U.S. troops and the Fleet from the Korean area but, as best he knows, only to save Pres. Asher’s life, even though such an act would result in the sure slaughter of who knows how many millions of South Koreans; however, maybe we’re just supposed to understand how hard it is to actually be the President, even though you’re in the direct line of succession and never set out to occupy the office), Fuqua has constructed an effective (although physically destructive, if that’s a concern for you) foray into a (sad but true) relevant political situation that we can only hope doesn’t escalate into anything we’re seeing in Olympus Has Fallen, so if you’re just looking for a well-crafted adrenalin rush, this one’s waiting for you (but maybe not for much longer in the theatres; despite its headline relevancy it’s taken in only about $71 million after 3 weeks and is falling fast at the box-office so unless Guam gets attacked in the next week or so you might want to look into this one fairly soon—although between the comments here and the available trailers I don’t know that you really need to see it unless you just want to see the inside of the White House again now that it’s been “sequestered” from tourists). Now, to finish off Olympus …, for those of you who can’t get enough of my musical interludes (which often are as much of a relevancy stretch as is my title this week), here’s a combination of patriotism and its discontents (with direct wartime references even in the original version’s lyrics) in Jimi Hendrix’s performance of The Star-Spangled Banner from the well-respected Woodstock documentary film (Michael Wadleigh, 1970) at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=euVR0QrGyfk. (Rock on, rock god; then RIP.)
OK, now that you’re in a musical mood we can switch our focus to a movie that’s about music … and racism … and more music … and war … and even more music … and some needed family reconciliation … then, just for good measure, we finish with just a bit more music, Wayne Blair‘s The Sapphires. This Australian offering (which opened abroad quite some time ago but is just making it to the U.S.) is based on the true story of 2 Aborigine sisters and their 2 cousins who were recruited to perform for American troops during the Vietnam War in 1968. Things have been fictionalized a bit for artistic purposes so now we have the 3 McCrae sisters (in the photo above from the left are Julie [Jessica Mauboy], Cynthia [Miranda Tapsell, actually the shortest one of the group but positioned so that she looks taller here], Gail [Deborah Mailman, just below Tapsell in the photo and who also appeared in the 2004 play which generated this movie, written by Tony Briggs based on the lives of his mother and aunt]), and their cousin Kay (Shari Sebbens), who was part of the “Stolen Generation” of children taken from their rural tribal homes as youngsters, part of the Australian government’s since-abandoned plan to force lighter-skinner indigenous people (Kay’s father was Irish, considered an embarrassment to her Aborigine family in a nice turnaround of the usual ethnic dismissals) to live in White homes for purposes of assimilation, isolating their darker-skinned relatives to reserves in the hinterlands in hopes they would just die out from lack of social support or at least be confined to their “own kind,” so as to become as marginal as possible on this European-immigrant-dominated continent (a brutal practice which has since been discontinued but was just coming under challenge at the time that this film is set). The sisters from the Cammeragunja settlement have a dream of making a mark in show business by singing American country and western tunes but their talent is ignored by the racist White locals until they stumble upon their newly-self-appointed-sometimes-semi-sober manager, Dave Lovelace (Chris O’Dowd, portraying a completely fictional character, not even inspired by real personages from the time, as were the girls, based mainly on Laurel Robinson and her sister, Lois Peeler), who sees potential in their voices if only they switch from Merle Haggard (they should have won the talent contest soon after we first meet them with their rendition of “Today I Started Loving You Again” [I hate to distract you from what turns out to be a great catalogue of ‘60s soul tunes later in this movie but I’ve got to admit that ol’ Merle has a catchy number here so if you want a dose of it, take a listen at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aILGaYsv_bc (of course, this is a 1997 live performance; if you want to hear what our Sapphires gals had access to back in 1968 here’s that recording at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7PY2yW9Biyo)]) to something that he assumes they should be more compatible with—and that he knows would be a better option for getting hired to entertain Black G.I.s in the neighboring war zone—the Motown sound, which provides the tempo for his daily bodily movements, sober or not (usually not).
Under Dave’s tutelage these young women develop a new performance identity fashioned on the Supremes (but named the Sapphires, after the essentially useless engagement ring that Cynthia still sports from Jimmy Middleton [Meyne Wyatt] who left her at the altar), struggle through some intra-family difficulties to finally come to their best on-stage presentation (which means that oldest sister/strongly independent Gail has to relinquish lead singing chores to youngest sibling Julie as well as finally bury the hatchet with Kay, who got too acclimated to her White stepfamily and said some insulting things to her cousins on a visit to the home territory a few years earlier), and plunge head-first into the war zone, allowing Dave to finally find a connection in the music world that had eluded him for years despite his love of soul and a desire to somehow be a part of it (given that for him the vast majority of anything else on the pop charts was simply “shite” [not being Australian—or British or Irish—I’ve never know if that was just a Down-Under/North-Atlantic pronunciation of animal residue or a more “civilized” version of an ancient Anglo-Saxon word, as with “nigra” in the 1950s-’60 American South that I grew up in (with apologies for what this latter term stands in for, a word that as a lifelong honky I have no business using even if African-Americans choose to claim it for their own purposes)]). As the Sapphires finally welcome Kay back into their harmonic convergence and leave their restricted lives back home for a taste of stardom, they find a new challenge beyond the former social rejection they faced whenever they wandered off their ancestral lands: they’ve got to strike some balance between being a sexy delight for the hormonally-challenged soldiers without giving in to the desires ranging all around them (and within the girls as well) to live the life of the minor-league pop stars that they’ve quickly evolved into. Dave’s supposed to be their all-protecting chaperone, but not only does he overlook how Kay has fallen for soldier Robby (Tony Kittles) he also manages to move from his own form of combat with assertive Gail into a romance with her that will finally blossom, especially after he’s wounded and left for dead as the girls escape one of their shows which comes under attack by the Viet Cong. O’Dowd turns in a winning performance as a lovable but reckless musician/manager who has the best interests of his performers at heart (and drives them to acceptable stage presence through endless rehearsals) but also is driven by a symbiotic relationship with their success, living in fame through them in a manner that was never realized by his own average talents.
The Sapphires find a level of personal freedom in Vietnam that they had not known at home because they are now in a more multicultural mix (more likely clash) of competing Asian and American forces where the U.S. troops in general accept them as something that seems more like their distant-but-not-forgotten culture, Black G.I.’s see them as Black also (although Kay has some personal demons to purge with African-American Robby about this) even as these young women have a somewhat different physical look than many Americans of African descent (a result of the earliest migration that we know of out of Africa, along the south Asian Indian Ocean shoreline into Australia about 40,000 years ago) but they understand themselves as Black and are referred to as such in Australia (just as colonial White Africans used to refer to anyone of non-European heritage as “Black,” not just the native sub-Saharan Africans but also the many South Asian settlers in various African countries, who mostly came from India yet are genetically classified as European in their DNA structures [as are all the native peoples of the Middle East, Hebrews and Arabs alike]), yet their young-adult liberation is traumatic because of their constantly dangerous surroundings (especially when their usual Army escort abandons them to their own devices to get to their next destination, a situation strangely similar to the Anglo travelers forced to leave their cavalry escort and continue on through the 19th century U.S. Southwest wilderness, dodging Indian attacks along the way in John Ford’s 1939 classic Stagecoach) and their challenge of balancing their desires for successful musical careers with the need to achieve fame in an environment that could result in death at any minute, as it seems to happen with Dave as he gets 2 of his charges to safety in a departing helicopter then is seemingly shot dead when he goes back to find the others (but even this escape vehicle for Gail and Cynthia is fraught with conflict as a wounded White soldier is repulsed by the care shown to him by Cynthia, rejecting the touch of this Black “unworthy” woman, even as he’s possibly bleeding to death). The final scene in Vietnam carries sorrowful commentary as well, with Martin Luther King’s death being announced by Robert Kennedy on a grainy TV screen as The Sapphires (and we, the audience) are constantly reminded of the one-step-forward-two-steps-back of our attempts at social enlightenment during the turmoil of the mid-20th century, where even embraceable soul music wasn’t enough to fully justify Black culture in the minds of the resistant White majority.
In many ways, The Sapphires’ Vietnam segments are an indication of what we might have seen in an even more expanded version of Francis Ford Coppola’s 1979 Apocalypse Now—beyond even the additions of the 2001 Redux release–if we could have seen an extension of the backstage lives of the Playboy Bunnies, who, in their brief scene, almost caused an inadvertent riot simply because they were the embodiment of the female absence that these battle-fatigued soldiers so desperately missed; The Sapphires’ soldiers don’t lose their better judgment—although Cynthia almost encourages them to in one wayward performance—as did those in Apocalypse Now, a much more serious and challenging filmic depiction of this war, seemingly because they could share with us a sense of the backstory of our girl group before they attempted to become star performers whereas neither the audience nor the soldiers associated with Coppola’s film were intended to understand the Bunnies as anything beyond abstracted visions of sexuality, a socially-mindless existence that becomes fleshed out (in a more positive implication of that phrase) in the depiction of the individual existences of the young women who give substance to The Sapphires.
Ultimately, the Sapphires' troupe is united (they even find wounded Dave who has proposed to Gail in a letter he wouldn’t let her read until a later time—a time in which she first assumed he was dead) for a last performance for the appreciative troops before the McCrae clan returns to home and family, with Dave now part of both and a sense of intra- and inter-personal self-discoveries that unite them all as stronger together than ever (even Kay is given a cleansing ceremony by her aged mother to fully welcome her back into the tribe). What helps unite the audience’s connection to these young women and their struggles for acceptance in a world based too long on traditional privilege and too resistant to full embrace of human diversity is their passion for the music that Dave introduces them to and their embrace of what soul is all about (according to him, it’s the resistance to the world of misery that the singers are acknowledging as opposed to C&W which is just whining about that same misery: soul songs, says Dave, display the same human hurt as C&W but there’s still the sense of rejection of what has caused the hurt rather than just wallowing in the pain—C&W fans may strongly disagree, but this is Dave’s philosophy which is essentially embodied in the progress of this movie; if that perspective doesn’t fit your worldview, The Sapphires may not be so easy to embrace). Assuming that audience members could find that same sense of connection to a challenge to the barriers that life constantly presents, there’s a fabulous soundtrack here to immerse yourself in throughout The Sapphires—including “Run Through the Jungle”; “Soul Man”; “I Heard It Through the Grapevine”; “Hold On, I’m Comin’"; “Land of a Thousand Dances”; “I’ll Take You There”—but their finale and the one that still moves me the most effectively is “I Can’t Help Myself” which I present to you here in 3 options: a short live version by the Four Tops in black and white from the 1960s at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aigRZ-1LjH0, a later version in color by the Four Tops with a lot of encouraged audience participation at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BV4aII5yqzc, and, finally, The Sapphires’ version from the movie presented to you at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wjUfyFtk5xc, so grab your own “Sugar Pie, Honey Bunch” and boogie on outta here while you appreciate what these young Aboriginal woman had to endure in that not-so-long-ago era as they fought with music rather than lawyers or weapons to be taken seriously as worthwhile human beings rather than some exotic non-human species (because, literally, they were classified as “Flora and Fauna” under Australian law until legal changes finally came about during the era depicted in The Sapphires). Singing and swaying to great music may feel like the delightful à la mode that signifies the beauty and wonderment of life, but be aware that it may conceal a much more significant consideration beneath the surface (the lurking liver dinner, for those of us who find the subterranean seriousness afoot in these movies in such a metaphor, or, if not, supply your own—other organ meats, turnips, raw oysters, or whatever causes you to stop in mid-bite/mid-movie awareness) that reminds you that even some seemingly mindless action or music films may hold a lot more significance that you were led to believe upon entrance into the theatre or the home screening room; for me, despite whatever other superficial pleasures may be contained in Olympus Has Fallen and The Sapphires (the latter effectively shot on location in Australia and Vietnam’s Ho Chi Minh City), there’s more to be found there than expected whether you’re interested in the discovery or not. Neither of these are substantial films but they operate on a more productive level than what their publicity immediately promotes.
If you’d like to know more about where Olympus Has Fallen to, here are some suggested links:
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Fp0umHMVCa0 (4 min. interview with director Antoine Fuqua and actor Gerard Butler)
If you’d like to know more about how shiny The Sapphires are, here are some suggested links:
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gxYyFh8kZ6Q (5:45 interview with the 4 female stars from Australian TV)
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P.S. Just to show that I haven’t fully flushed Texas out of my system here’s an alternative destination for you, Home in a Texas Bar, with Gary P. Nunn and Jerry Jeff Walker.