‘Olympus Has Fallen’ is ‘Die Hard’ with a mean streak

By Tom Von Malder | Aug 24, 2013
Photo by: Sony Pictures Home Entertainment One of the tasks a Secret Service agent played by Gerard Butler is to rescue the President’s son in “Olympus Has Fallen.”

Owls Head — Olympus Has Fallen (Sony, Blu-ray or standard DVD, R, 119 min.). The headline is not meant in a bad way because I actually liked this action-packed film, but the script does borrow liberally from the situations of the first “Die Hard” film. This time, it is the White House and president Ben Asher (Aaron Eckhart) that are in danger and outcast Secret Service Agent Mike Banning (Gerard Butler, well suited to the role) is the one that has to save him, going it alone.

The film opens 18 months before the attack. En route to a fundraiser in the snow, the President’s car spins partway off a bridge. Banning has only seconds in which to act. He saves the President, but the First Lady (Ashley Judd) is lost. Since seeing Banning around the White House would remind the President of that awful incident, Banning is assigned a desk job at the Treasury. Then the North Koreans attack Washington, D.C. and the White House (Secret Service code name Olympus). Director Antoine Fuqua (“Training Day”) does a fine job with the attack, which first is by an airplane with an effective defense mechanism. It strafes the area around the White House, killing dozens. Next, a ground attack is launched. Third, it is revealed that among the visiting South Korean Prime Minister Lee’s party are a couple of traitors, led by terrorist Kang Yeonsak (Rick Yune). The terrorists take over the President’s bunker beneath the White House and try to obtain three needed nuclear missile-related codes by force. (This results in a particularly bad time for Secretary of Defense Ruth McMillan (played with steel by Melissa Leo).

With both the President and Vice President out of action, it falls to Speaker of the House Allan Trumble (Morgan Freeman, who really is not given much to do) to assume the duties of the Presidency. Angela Bassett plays Lynn Jacobs, head of the Secret Service, and Robert Forster plays Army Chief of Staff Gen. Clegg, who Trumble gets to butt heads with in one memorable scene. However, the film really belongs to Butler’s Manning, who manages to force his way into the stricken White House, albeit alone, and, as his first task, rescue the President’s son, so he cannot be used as leverage to get the President’s Cerberus code. The meanness comes in as to how Manning operates; he’s a take-no-prisoners type of guy. The film certainly earns its R rating.

Director Fuqua often goes for the obvious (the slow-motion fall of a distressed U.S. flag from the top of the White House) and occasionally makes a bad choice (he has the Washington Monument collapse in similar fashion to the World Trade Center tower), but the attack sequence and, later, the helicopter assault, have some thrilling moments. Extras, available only on the Blu-ray edition, include a look at the cast (6:58); a making-of feature (11:36); a deconstruction of the helicopter sequence (3:30); a look at the ground attack (3:02); examination of the visual effects and design (7:03); and a blooper reel (2:26). Grade: film 3.25 stars; extras 2.5 stars

Rating guide: 5 stars = classic; 4 stars = excellent; 3 stars = good; 2 stars = fair; dog = skip it

Oblivion (Universal, Blu-ray or standard DVD, PG-13, 124 min.). This is a solid science fiction film that could have been a great one with a better script. Written and directed by Joseph Kosinski (“Tron: Legacy”), and based on his illustrated novel, the film is set on a future Earth that has been destroyed while battling an alien invasion some 50 years prior. The saying is we won, but the Earth was made almost inhospitable. Tom Cruise plays Jack Harper, who is a drone technician and security man, making sure the remaining Scavs do not destroy the equipment needed to gather resources (mostly seawater) for the new human colony on Titan, a moon of Saturn. Harper and his partner Victoria (Andrea Riseborough), who never leaves their airborne home, have two weeks of duty left, before they too head to Titan.

Halfway through the film, though, everything changes after Harper rescues an astronaut (Olga Kurylinko as Julia), and the ultimate reveals are both clever and thought-provoking. First, though, Harper is captured by some Scavs, who turn out to be human survivors led by Malcolm (Morgan Freeman; coincidentally, Freeman’s “Olympus Has Fallen” co-star Melissa Leo also is in this film, playing Victoria, the woman at the command center that Victoria reports to). The look of Kosinski’s film is very much influenced by Stanley Kubrick’s “2001: A Space Odyssey. I’m not sure he really pulls off the destroyed Earth look, as remaining landmarks seem a bit too close together. And one airborne fight sequence, heavily influenced by the first “Star Wars,” looks too much like a video game. However, it is the ideas that makes the film very much worth watching.

The film also features a terrific score by the electronica band M8e, which can be heard as an isolated track on the Blu-ray version. Also exclusive to Blu-ray are looks ate the making of the Bubble Ship (Cruise is so enthusiastic here) and the combat stunts. Both versions contain four deleted scenes (4:25); audio commentary by Kosinski and Cruise; and three other making-of features, including the filming in Iceland and the music score. Grade: film 3 stars; extras 3.25 stars

G.I. Joe: Retaliation (Paramount, Blu-ray or standard DVD, PG-13, 110 min.).
It looks like Dwayne Johnson is taking over the lead of another franchise. His Roadblock becomes the leader of a remnant of G.I. Joes, after a sneak attack by our own government kills most of them, following a successful mission to obtain two stolen nuclear devices from Pakistan. As you may or may not remember from the last film in the series, the President (Jonathan Pryce) actually is Cobra operative Zartan (Arnold Vosloo) thanks to nano-technology that alters his physical appearance. Roadblock has with him Lady Jaye (Adrianne Palicki) and Flint (D.J. Cotrana) -- zero sparks there even though Flint wishes it were otherwise.  Johnson brings them to Gen Joe Colton (Bruce Willis), the original Joe, for help.

The plot often is a mess, frankly. However, Cobra Commander (Luke Bracey) has to be broken out of an underground prison by Storm Shadow (Byang-hun Lee), who, in turns out is a bit misunderstood and wrongly blamed for the death of his teacher. The best sequence occurs high in the Himalayas (well actually on a soundstage wall, as the very good extras show), as a couple of G.I. Joes go after a recovering Storm Shadow so they can discover Cobra Commander’s plan. There is a lot of fighting while rappelling along the side of mountains, making for a unique battle. However, the ending is ludicrous, as Combra Commander takes control of the United States’ nuclear missiles (oh, didn’t that happen in “Olypus Has Fallen”) and launched a new destructive bomb that is dropped from orbit. There is a command case with the ability to abort these space bombs, but for the final 20 minutes or so, Roadblock is continually firing at the case and its holder (Ray Stevenson as bad guy Firefly) or even blowing them up. Thank goodness it still works after all that abuse.

In the extras, we learn director Jon M. Chu grew up playing with G.I. Joe figures, making him the choice to helm this film, even though his previous films were two of the “Step Up” films and the “Justin Bieber: Never Say Never” documentary (Chu also has been hired to direct the next “G.I. Joe” film). Chu handles the action sequences well, but he needs a much better script to work with. Extras include audio commentary by Chu and producer Lorenzo di Bonaventura; three deleted scenes (3:59; includes the killing of the Pakistan president and our President making an intern joke); and a very interesting, entertaining, 73-minute making-of feature. Grade: film 2.5 stars; extras 3 stars

Teen Beach Movie (Disney DVD, TVG, 91 min.).
Overall, this is a success, even though the actors, many of whom seem better dancers than singers (and the dancing is terrific), do not stand out as much as those from “High School Musical,” this film’s obvious template. Brady (Ross Lynch) has gotten real close to McKenzie (Maia Mitchell), while teaching her to surf during the summer. However, suddenly she is headed to a school thousands of miles away and he only learns about it at the last minute. She decides to try the giant waves that arrive on her last day, only to get in trouble, causing Brady to go out to help her. Both go under and, a la “The Wizard of Oz,” they find themselves in a magical place, the 1962 movie “Wet Side Story” that Brady loves.

In the film, the surfers and the bikers are about to square off over who gets to call Big Momma’s restaurant theirs. (The movie also borrows liberally from “Grease,” even to the girls’ slumber party scene.). What makes the movie fun is the dancing, first and foremost. A couple of the songs are good, with the highlight being when Brady joins the bikers to lead the song “Cruisin’ for a Bruisin’.” However, the film also succeeds in its nods to the beach movies of the past, including some awareness of the characters that they indeed are just that, characters who are a bit stereotyped (most notable Garrett Clayton as dream beau Tanner). In the film, Tanner is supposed to save Lela (Grace Phipps), when she falls off the stage, but instead it is Brady who catches Lela and McKenzie who catches Tanner’s eye. This sets the whole beach movie’s plot awry, lessening Brady and McKenzie’s chances of getting back to the real world (they start becoming a real part of the movie, most memorably in a song/production number that McKenzie cannot stop being a part of).

The bit with the mad scientist who wants to control the weather so he can have the beach for development did nothing for me. The film would have been fine without it. I am disappointed that Disney did not issue the film on Blu-ray; the chapter stops on the DVD are too few to be of use. What was needed was direct access to each of the production numbers. The sole extra, however, is interesting: rehearsal footage for seven songs, including “Coolest Cats in Town,” which did not make the film. Grade: film 3.25 stars; extras 2.5 stars

Disney also has issued new Blu-ray editions of three of its animated classics. “The Sword in the Stone” (1963, G, 79 min.) tells the tale of a young orphan, Wart (voiced by Rickie Sorensen), who meets the wizard Merlin (voiced by Carl Swenson). Of course, the boy is to grow up to be King Arthur. The late Sebastian Cabot narrates and voices Sir Ector. The film is based on the first chapter of T. H. White’s novel, “The Once and Future King.” Extras include a never-before-seen alternate opening; a look at the Sherman Brothers, who, along with George Bruns, created the Oscar nominated score; and the bonus shorts, “A Knight for a Day” and Brave Little Tailor.” “Oliver and Company” (1988, G, 74 min.) tells the tale of mischievous orphaned kitten Oliver (voiced by Joey Lawrence), who is befriended by the dog Dodger (voiced by Billy Joel) and his ragtag family of misfit mutts. Joel, Bette Midler and Huey Lewis sing in the film. Extras include a making-of feature, a look at Disney’s animated animals and the bonus shorts, “Lend a Paw” (an Oscar winner from 1941) and “Puss Café.” Finally, there is “Robin Hood” (1973, G, 83 min.) in which the title character is portrayed as a fox and voiced by Brian Bedford. The tale is the familiar one, but with animated animals in all the parts. Peter Ustinov voices both Prince John and King Richard (no conflict there, ha!), while Phil Harris voices Little John, Andy Devine is Friar Tuck and Terry-Thomas is Sir Hiss. All three are highly recommended for family fun.

Detective Inspector Irene Huss: Episodes 7-9 (Sweden, Mhz, 3 DVDs, NR, 581 min.). This is the second season -- three telefilms -- of the Swedish police procedural series that stars Angela Kovacs as the title character. The crime series is based on the books by Helene Tursten. Huss is a former European ju-jitsu champion and the mother of two teenage daughters, one of whom is moving out of the house and both of whom are threatened in “The Hidden Watcher,” a deceptively simple story that packs a walloping and brutal ending that tests Huss to her limits. As detective inspector with the Violent Crimes Unit, she has to find a serial killer in “The Hidden Watcher,” after two Boy Scouts find a body in a desolate field. Soon, five more bodies are found, each grave marked by small stones and each body buried with a personal item. All were middle-aged women. Thirty minutes into the film, we know who the killer is, and so do the police 15 minutes later. However, it appears the killer, who gets to know his victims by their hobbies or other personal interests, has both maneuvered a way to escape punishment and has fixated on Huss as his possible next victim. Huss also resigns in the course of the film in both frustration and concern for her daughters.

The second telefilm, “The Treacherous Net,” involves young girls being kidnapped, after being lured to danger through Internet chat rooms. In the third, “The Man with the Small Face,” a retired policeman is struck by a stolen car that later turns up as a charred cinder, with a severely injured girl nearby. There’s excitement, gritty realism and a full home life for Huss, whose husband  Krister is a successful chef and restaurateur. The first of the three introduces Moa Gammel as Elin Nordenskiold, the unit’s new CSI. Dag Malmberg plays Detective Jonny. Grade: season 3.25 stars

Next time: The animated “Epic” and releases from the Star Trek and Doctor Who universes.

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