When last seen on Hollywood soil, in the 2012 Red Dawn remake, evil North Korean invaders had touched down in Spokane, Washington, where they were quickly butt-kicked by a bunch of teenagers. Having learned nothing from that experience, the Norks are now back, and in Olympus Has Fallen, they’ve targeted the White House, into which they manage to blast their way in just 13 minutes. Clearly, this sequester thing is having a more serious effect on national security than anyone could have expected.
Director Antoine Fuqua, who made the steely Training Day a dozen years ago, here delivers a movie that traffics in the most shameless patriot-baiting readymades (a sad bugle sounding, a bullet-riddled Old Glory rustling limply in the breeze) while attempting to yank cheers with a succession of bad-guy mowdowns (there are more headshots in this picture than might be found at a SAG board meeting).
For a piece of elevator-pitch action fodder like this, the cast is unusually heavy with stars: Aaron Eckhart, Morgan Freeman, Melissa Leo. But none of these actors are given a lot to do. (Eckhart spends most of the movie in handcuffs, Leo gets kicked around a little bit, and Freeman looks very concerned and calls for coffee.) The film’s focus is almost entirely on Gerard Butler, who is also one of its 14 producers, and who may be hoping to obliterate all memories of his last performance, playing a leprechaun in the universally reviled Movie 43.
Butler is actually a solid action man, though. He plays Mike Banning, a former Secret Service officer who was unjustly bounced off the presidential security detail after a nasty limo accident and now labors unhappily in the Treasury Department. When a plane full of North Koreans comes barreling into D.C. airspace (with surprising ease) and starts strafing the streets of the Capitol -- and blowing off the top of the Washington Monument, the bastards -- Banning immediately makes his way to the White House, which he finds under assault by a Nork assault team. He manages to cap a number of these assailants, but fails to stop them from machine-gunning their way into the building. Soon their leader -- a hissable character named Kang (Rick Yune) -- has some high-profile hostages to play with: President Benjamin Asher (Eckhart) and his VP (Phil Austin) and Secretary of Defense (Leo). On a TV feed to the Pentagon, Kang demands the computer codes for every nuke-equipped ICBM in the US arsenal. This can’t be good. (Kang turns out to be an international terrorist, not an official emissary of the North Korean government…although he’s based in North Korea, and…whatever.)
With the president and vice president both indisposed, the Speaker of the House (Freeman) is brought in, as constitutionally mandated, to act as president. He is, as I say, very concerned. Fortunately, Banning has managed to slip into the White House (with surprising ease) and has begun greasing Norks left and right. He continues to do so, and do so, and do so, until there’s just one bad man left lurking -- the hateful Kang.
There’s not much more to the movie than Banning’s lethal progression through the halls and even the hollow walls of the White House, blowing the face off every North Korean he encounters. At the screening I attended, this rousing slaughter had its intended effect on a sizeable number of people, who erupted in applause every time a bad guy went flying away in a haze of blood. These particular invaders are admittedly pretty hard to mourn, though.
More dismaying is the primitive quality of the digital effects in this movie. Some of the explosions and fires and plane crashes on view are rendered at a level just a few steps above the White House attack video posted by the real-world Norks on YouTube earlier this week. (Talk about useful idiots -- have these people never heard of pre-release publicity?) This sub-par CGI was concocted by effects houses in Bulgaria, Denmark, and China. Under-employed Hollywood VFX artists are understandably up in arms about this sort of outsourcing. And while it might make sense in a bean-counting way, do we really need to see the beans being counted onscreen?
Admission is a smarter movie than the average romantic comedy, and while chugging along on the way to its inexorable happy wrapup, it passes through some interesting social territory, touching on issues of parenting, academic priorities, and professional ethics. It’s also very funny in parts, with bright performances by Tina Fey and Lily Tomlin. But the comedy and the social observation don’t quite meld -- you want a little more of either one or the other -- and when the movie’s over, you’re left feeling somewhat under-gratified.
The picture was directed by Paul Weitz (Little Fockers) and adapted -- not slavishly, I gather -- from a novel by Jean Hanff Korelitz. Fey plays Portia Nathan, an admissions officer at Princeton University. (Parts of the film were shot on-campus, and there’s a weird suggestion that Princeton is the only school in the country worth getting into.) Portia’s boss, Clarence (Wallace Shawn), the Dean of Admissions, lectures his subordinates about the need to look beyond mere academic excellence in assessing Princeton applicants: sports are important, mixed ethnic heritage is always good, and a disabled parent can be a plus, too. (Since author Korelitz is married to a Princeton professor, these calculations have a ping of accuracy.)
Portia makes an annual round of high schools to address potential Princeton applicants. She’s glib (“Just be yourself”) and candid (noting that of the 20,000 students who apply to her school each year, 99 per cent won’t be accepted). One of her stops this year is an “alternative” school called New Quest, located in rural New Hampshire, where students are instructed not only in academic subjects, but also such crunchy extra-curricular activities as wood-chopping and animal husbandry. The school is run by John Pressman (Paul Rudd), a barely remembered acquaintence from Portia’s own student days at Dartmouth. John recommends to her a student named Jeremiah (Nat Wolff), whose grades are abysmal but who is nevertheless a brilliant autodidact. In addition, Paul has learned that Jeremiah was adopted as a baby -- and that he was born on the same day and in the same area that the younger Portia (as her roommate told him at the time) quietly gave birth to a male child and then put him up for adoption. Portia initially resists the implication that Jeremiah is her now-grown son, but soon begins to wonder -- and eventually undertakes a highly inadvisable series of measures to assure his admission to Princeton.
Effectively complicating the plot is a Princeton professor named Mark (Martin Sheen), with whom Portia has lived happily for 10 years. When he takes up with another woman, Portia feels sandbagged. (Clingy emotion isn’t Fey’s strong suit, but she makes it both funny and revealing.) There’s also another admissions officer (Gloria Reuben), who’s competing with Portia to replace the retiring Clarence. And then there’s Portia’s mother, Susannah (Tomlin), a fire-breathing ’70s feminist who says she fulfilled society’s expectation that she have children by copulating with a stranger on a train, Portia being the result. Susannah is a monster of self-sufficiency, and Tomlin is unsparingly abrasive in the role; but she manages to mine laughs from this woman’s every chilly wisecrack and withering glance.
It’s too bad that the movie is so seriously handicapped by the character of John, who we realize from the outset is Portia’s designated squeeze-to-be. Turning away from his wealthy background, John has traveled the world doing nothing but good works in places like Myanmar and Outer Mongolia. He has even adopted an African child, a long-suffering boy named Nelson (Travaris Spears), who’s tired of his father’s globe-trotting and wants them to settle into a permanent home. John is perfect in just about every way -- warm, handsome, selflessly idealistic -- and if he were played by anyone other than the unconquerably appealing Paul Rudd, he could easily be insufferable. He’s pretty hard to accept as it is.
Tomlin is something to see, though, and Fey once again excels at portraying a modern woman beset by very modern struggles and expectations. But the movie’s attempted blend of serious subjects with spirited comedy doesn’t really hold together. Admission does have quite a bit to recommend it. If only there were a little more.
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