Even though there's little evidence that consuming violent entertainment leads to violence in real life, it's felt a bit weird watching a guns-blazing action movie since the Sandy Hook mass shooting. People with guns and lots of people getting shot just wasn't as fun as it used to be. But to my surprise, I found myself really enjoying Olympus Has Fallen, a violent R-rated film with a high body count about a lone Secret Service agent (Gerard Butler) who blasts his way through a group of North Korean terrorists who have taken over the White House. It got me thinking about how someone like me -- a liberal who doesn't own a gun, hates the NRA, and is critical of most wars -- can get such enjoyment out of certain violent movies and video games. How do we decide which types of violent entertainments are appropriate and which are gratuitous and glorifying?
As with most difficult issues, context is key. Watch my ReThink Review of Olympus Has Fallen for more (transcript following).
Last year saw the horrible reboot of Red Dawn, where an army absurdly led by North Korea came close to occupying the United States. Only slightly less absurd is the premise of Olympus Has Fallen, where a terrorist group again led by North Koreans is somehow able to attack and take over the White House, perhaps the most heavily guarded building on earth, and take the president hostage. But for some reason, and to my amazement, Olympus Has Fallen totally works. And I think the reason why is something that recent events have made us sensitive to, yet still remains a guilty or not-so-guilty pleasure: unrepentant violence. Which I'll explain.
In the film, Aaron Eckhart plays President Benjamin Asher and Gerard Butler is his favorite Secret Service agent, Mike Banning, who is pushed out of the presidential detail after failing to rescue the first lady after a tragic accident. Years later, Banning is near the White House when a large group of North Korean terrorists launches a bloody and brazen frontal assault on the White House, killing scores of security personnel and workers before taking the president and his cabinet hostage in the White House's impenetrable underground bunker. With his inside knowledge of the White House and its security, Banning must kill his way through the building to rescue the president and his cabinet before the North Koreans are able to kill them, or even worse, extract launch codes for the U.S.' nuclear arsenal.
In a lot of ways, Olympus Has Fallen could loosely be described as "Die Hard in the White House", and Olympus Has Fallen certainly lifts quite a few aspects of that 1988 classic. But as I mentioned, what makes Olympus Has Fallen a fun movie is its use of violence. First, I don't believe that violent entertainment necessarily causes violent behavior, otherwise countries whose citizens watch the same movies and play the same video games as Americans do would be just as murderous, which clearly isn't the case. Second, I do believe that some movies are too violent or are pointlessly, needlessly, or ineffectively violent.
But for a movie like Olympus Has Fallen to be good, it NEEDS to be violent. This is a movie about highly trained commandos on a suicide mission who will kill anyone to achieve their goal, and a former Special Forces operator and Secret Service agent trained to obliterate any threat without hesitation -- which Banning does with a nonchalance and humor befitting his training and experience. It would be both inauthentic and inconsistent if a story like this didn't involve lots of cold-blooded killing, which is unfortunately the route that the new Red Dawn took in its effort to get a more teen-friendly PG-13 rating. The result was a film about a massive military invasion and resulting insurgency that was curiously bloodless, thus never invoking the brutal reality of what a foreign invasion on US soil would really be like.
With the spike in mass shootings the U.S. is experiencing, violent movies have been accused of being partially responsible for creating a climate that glorifies guns and violence. And if you want to say that there are too many violent movies being made, go for it. But that's different from saying that a movie with a violent premise should have its violence reduced regardless of context, akin to people who criticized Django Unchained for its liberal use of "nigger," regardless of the fact that the story takes place in the slave-owning south before the Civil War. Olympus Has Fallen is bloody and violent -- as it should be -- which is what makes it such an exciting good time. And in my mind, the fact that the makers of Olympus Has Fallen earned the film's R rating by not sanitizing the violence at its core, even if it meant sacrificing some ticket sales, strikes me as a responsible way to make and market stories where violence and gunfights are unavoidable.