Olympus Has Fallen vs. White House Down

(Welcome to Seeing Double, a series where two strangely similar films released around the same time are put head-to-head. This time: we get political with two movies about terrorist attacks on the most famous house in America!)

These are trying times for the United States, and depending on your own political awareness you either see that the country is slowly bleeding to death beneath the ignorant and greedy whims of those in power, or you’re wrong. It’s not a pretty picture regardless of which way you look at it, and as is often the case, many of us turn to the movies for a more simplistic and distilled take on the real world’s woes – in this case, that of evil forces attacking America.

With that in mind, we’re revisiting a pair of movies that opened in theaters only three months apart back in 2013 with very similar plot lines. Terrorist forces attack and take over the White House itself in Olympus Has Fallen and White House Down, and cinema would never be the same again.

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The Story

In Olympus Has Fallen, terrorists attack and infiltrate the White House, and only a disgraced Secret Service agent stands a chance of stopping them. In White House Down, terrorists attack and infiltrate the White House, and only a wannabe Secret Service agent stands a chance of stopping them.

Advantage: It’s a tie, obviously, as both movies have a near identical premise.

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The Filmmakers

Director Antoine Fuqua has seen ups (Training Day) and downs (Bait) in his filmmaking career, but Olympus Has Fallen reveals a clear appreciation for action, energy, and character that’s equally evident elsewhere in his filmography. The scripts can often leave something to be desired, but from The Equalizer to The Magnificent Seven, Fuqua displays a knack for building and executing action set-pieces. This script in particular, though, is ridiculous both in premise and dialogue. It’s the feature debut of Creighton Rothenberger and Katrin Benedikt – a writing duo who’ve since gone on to gift the world with The Expendables 3 and London Has Fallen – but as silly as it gets, the script finds fun in and around the action beats.

White House Down comes to the screen with slightly bigger names behind the scenes, including director Roland Emmerich and writer James Vanderbilt. Emmerich, of course, is no stranger to big action spectacles with blockbusters like Independence Day, The Day After Tomorrow, and 2012 to his name. This is obviously a somewhat more grounded adventure – every bit as goofy, but still more grounded – and Emmerich does some of his best character work since The Patriot. Vanderbilt, meanwhile, brings some real cache to the production as the writer of Zodiac, but he also co-wrote The Rundown, which showed an affinity for pairing goofy humor with action sequences. Both skillsets are put to great use here.

Advantage: Both Fuqua and Emmerich came in with previous hits to their name, but the latter’s disaster epics made him the safer bet. Add in the competing writers, and White House Down takes the category.

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The Cast

Gerard Butler takes the lead in Olympus as Agent Stabby McHeadshot, and while the character’s name is a bit on the nose he brings a sloppy yet muscular gravitas to the role. He’s joined by Aaron Eckhart as the President and a supporting cast that includes Dylan McDermott, Rick Yune, Morgan Freeman, Angela Bassett, Melissa Leo, Robert Forster, Radha Mitchell, and Ashley Judd. Most of them act simply as talking heads reacting to the action, but a few of them get some swings in here and there.

White House Down‘s hero is more John McClane than Marion “Cobra” Cobretti, and Channing Tatum is a natural fit for both the physical action and boundless sense of humor. Jamie Foxx, meanwhile, finds more laughs as the President, and the two spend a lot of the film hanging out and bantering with each other under fire. As with Olympus, the supporting roster is loaded with talent including Maggie Gyllenhaal, Jason Clarke, Richard Jenkins, Michael Murphy, Jimmi Simpson, and James Woods starring as himself.

Advantage: Look at these casts. Of course it’s another tie!

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Critical Reception

Fuqua’s film is sitting rotten at 48% on Rotten Tomatoes with reviews calling it out for its cruelty, simplicity, and shoddy effects work. I can’t argue with that last one, but the first two shouldn’t be considered automatic negatives. “A lot of footage of Gerard Butler skulking around dark hallways and neutralizing terrorists,” says eFilmCritic, but how is that a bad thing?! Emmerich’s action romp just barely beats it with a still-rotten 51%. Most of its detractors cite the humor as being an issue along with, once again, some atrocious effects work. “It follows the Emmerich template: a spectacle-tinged, compelling setup; a dumb, disappointing midsection; and a cheese-topped denouement that veers so close to self-parody that one is tempted to call it funny,” says ReelViews, and while there’s no denying the cheese, I’ll go beyond simple temptation and actually call it funny.

These aren’t really awards bait-type films, but I’d be remiss if I didn’t point out that both were nominated by the Washington DC Area Film Critics Association for “Best Portrayal of Washington, D.C.” They both lost to Lee Daniels’ The Butler.

Advantage: Neither film was loved by critics in general, so this one’s another tie.

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Budget and Box Office

At “only” $70 million pre-marketing, Olympus was the cheaper of the two to produce. It went on to earn $161 million worldwide, and while that’s far from a blockbuster profit, it was enough to warrant a sequel in 2016’s London Has Fallen and a third film in the upcoming Angel Has Fallen. That’s right. We’re getting a third chapter in the Stabby McHeadshot saga. White House Down made more worldwide – roughly $205 million – but it also cost more than double Olympus‘ budget, coming in at $150 million before marketing. That left it unavoidably in the red.

Advantage: Olympus Has Fallen may not have made a lot of money, but at least it made money.

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My Take

I love both movies equally for different reasons. Olympus Has Fallen has personality but is purely interested in the action – bloody, violent, foul-mouthed action. The carnage starts twenty minutes in as North Korean terrorists mow down people in the D.C. streets and slaughter dozens more while gaining access to the White House. Butler revels in the brutality he dishes out to the intruders, and old-school Cannon Films fans like myself will enjoy the callback to action movies of decades past. White House Down pares down the outside action and begins its assault from inside the building. Bloodless mayhem and nods toward political correctness follow, but it all comes with solid action beats, immense silliness, and epic amounts of cheese. Tatum and Foxx are a fun team, and they ensure the film’s best categorized as an action/comedy. Both films clearly blew their budgets on cast costs and explosive squibs, leaving very little left over for the CG effects departments, but honestly, that just adds to their respective charms.

So yeah, both movies are winners in my book.

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