Updated: Oct 15, 2020
Due to their retro roots, George reviews the recent Die Hard rip-offs, White House Down and Olympus Has Fallen. Are they guilty pleasures or crimes against the action genre? Read on to find out…
There is no such thing as a new idea....
There’s a recurring Hollywood phenomenon where, sometimes in the space of a few months, two big movies are released with almost-identical plots. In the 1990s, this happened a lot. You may remember two disaster movies from 1997; Volcano and Dantes Peak. A year later we had Deep Impact, an asteroid movie that’s not as good and nowhere near as fun as Armageddon. We also had two animated films about an insecure ant who becomes a hero – Antz or A Bugs Life. A couple of years later, saw Mars set sci-fi Red Planet released in the same year as the similar if slightly more intelligent, Mission to Mars.
Naturally, as humans with a competitive nature, we’re inclined to make a decision on which of the two films is better. With hindsight, most of those films are pretty forgettable, with only Armageddon making a deep impact (ahem)… Probably due to it being the noisiest and most outrageous (back when Michael Bay was more “restrained”).
In 2013, the phenomenon made a comeback with two films tackling a terrorist attack on the White House – it appears that Hollywood felt enough time had elapsed since 9/11 to make light entertainment about terrorist attacks on American soil.
Olympus Has Fallen (for simplicity, referred to as OHF) was directed by Training Day and The Equalizer helmer Anton Fuqua and White House Down (WHD) from Roland Emmerich, a director famous for destroying American landmarks (Independence Day, The Day After Tomorrow, 2012, etc). The competing films usually share a familiar plot premise – volcanoes, asteroids and Mars landings, etc. These two films appear to share a sole film as inspiration – genre classic Die Hard (1988).
Obviously, there have been many attempts to copy the Die Hard formula over the years - Under Siege, Sudden Death, Speed and Cliffhanger to name a few . As I discussed in my review of Air Force One, that film had Harrison Ford’s President of the United States (POTUS) going all John McClane by deciding to tackle the terrorists mid-flight on his private 747. However, in both these “Die Hard in The White House” movies, this time the POTUS is not the hero but instead paired with a John McClane clone. WHD has John Cale (Channing Tatum), a wannabe Secret Service agent. An underdog trying to earn his daughter’s respect and get his dream job of guarding the POTUS. OHF has Mike Banning (Gerard Butler) a disgraced secret service agent who failed to save the first lady. Banning may not be a father, (he’s too busy being a goddamn patriotic hero) but acts a surrogate to the President’s son, so we’re covered on that front.
WHD has Tatum tasked with protecting Jamie Foxx’s President, a younger spin on Obama; likeable, warm and witty. The film’s main strength is the odd couple/buddy cop rapport between Foxx and Tatum. Whilst Tatum could be accused of coasting on his trademark underdog charm, it’s a nice change of role for Foxx. I sometimes forget how versatile he can be. In just over a year, he had made Horrible Bosses (he was one of the better things in it), Django Unchained and this.
In the other White House, Aaron Eckhart is playing the POTUS in a performance that’s a mix of square-jawed charm and earnestness, not a million miles away from his character Harvey Dent in The Dark Knight (2008), you know before he goes cray-cray and becomes Two-Face. OHF aims to set up an interesting dynamic between the hero and the President –the President’s only hope is the man who failed to save his wife. It's a good storyline that unfortunately never really plays out. It’s more of a plot device to keep Banning on the outside as an unknown quantity when it all kicks off. It doesn’t help for all the good acting chops Eckhart has, he spends most of the movie tied up on the floor of his bunker.
What to say about Gerard Butler? The shouty Scot brings his usual macho mix of gruff authority and a dodgy American accent. Despite his shortcomings, Butler can be a convincing action hero and curses like a pro, having one of the best one-liners in years, “Let’s play a game of Fuck Off, you go first”
Both films feature dramatic opening attacks to seize the White House but it’s really OHF that registers with a gripping and brutal opening assault on Washington. If anything Fuqua's scenes of collateral damage are a bit too much. I would argue that it’s the old school action violence that allows OHF to triumph over the outrageousness of WHD. Don’t get me wrong, OHF is completely over the top too, with John Wick (2014) levels of henchman fatalities. Butler stabs at least two bad guys in the head!
WHD, with its lack of bloodshed, is clearly going for the more family friendly/tween vibe. There’s even a sub-plot about Cale’s daughter’s vlog and how her YouTube videos help identify the terrorists and I’m like, totally not even joking! As previously mentioned, the film’s strength is the banter between the two leads. While it’s funny seeing the President struggling to handle a rocket launcher – a similar joke that was done a lot better almost 30 years previously in Commando where Arnie’s sidekick (Rae Dawn Chong) accidentally fires one backwards.
Unfortunately, neither film is able to fully escape the (very big) shadow of Die Hard. Both rely too much on plot beats established in the 1988 classic. In both films, we get to see the hero and villain trading wise-cracks over walkie-talkie and a final act involving a failed rescue attempt via helicopter.
Characters & Casting
WHD even has it’s mercenaries pushed through the Die Hard mould. Instead of intense henchman Karl, we get Jason Clarke’s disgraced Black Ops soldier. For the camp geeky tech guy like Theo, we get Jimmi Simpson in full Graham Norton mode. It’s clear they’re both working with limited material as they’re both capable of turning in better performances. Clarke is solid in Zero Dark Thirty and Dawn of the Planet of The Apes and Simpson was one of the standouts in the recent Westworld series.
However the films don’t just rip off Die Hard, they even go as far as even borrowing from other Die Hard knock offs. From the war room scenes from Air Force One, where OHF wins points for using a near identical set and having Angela Bassett getting as close to Glenn Close as a gal can. WHD even features Air Force One (the plane) as major plot development. However, when you see the plane is full of obvious cannon fodder, you know something is likely to go wrong.
WHD also borrows from The Rock with a supposedly tragic villain and his disgruntled mercenaries. In the most ridiculous scene, it goes as far as having Cale’s daughter heroically waving the American flag to ward off an impending airstrike (urgh, I felt nauseous just writing that)! Obviously harking back to Nic Cage and his green flares (NB. smoke beacons, opposed to his choice of trousers) in The Rock.
Which film is better?
In the end, I found myself getting more annoyed with WHD, which feels like a poor man’s Die Hard 4.0 with it’s 12A (PG-13) levels of action violence. Emmerich’s films have always relied on spectacle, usually interspersed with some trite sentimentality from two-dimensional characters and this film is no different.
Whilst there’s less CGI destruction than usual and despite having twice the budget of its rival, there seems to be a lot of blue screen backgrounds (due to restrictions of filming on location) and the cartoon violence becomes laughable. My favourite being the car chase involving presidential support vehicles that come with retractable miniguns – you never know when they’ll come in handy.
OHF goes all guns blazing/knives stabbing to harken back the action thrillers of the 80s and 90’s that I enjoyed so much growing up. It’s far from perfect, it’s not even close to the other Die Hard rip offs I’ve mentioned, yet after a few beers, it fits the bill for mindless entertainment. It’s safe to say that Fuqua has more form than Emmerich in the action film arena, The Equalizer (2014) being an improvement and plays like an unofficial Jack Reacher film. Yes – much better than either of the Tom Cruise efforts.
Looking at the box office and critical reception, White House Down was deemed the loser in this film face off. Olympus Has Fallen, with a relatively small budget, was more popular with audiences and the studio quickly churned out a sequel – London Has Fallen (2016). Despite poor reviews and apparently being downright offensive, another sequel, Angel Has Fallen (2018) on its way...