Disclaimer: Spoilers abound.
It’s hard to go from seeing a visceral film like Django Unchained, where director Quentin Tarantino expected contemporary audiences to cheer the violence against racist white bodies, to seeing a movie like Olympus Has Fallen, where white hard bodies like Gerard Butler’s stab and torture Asian ones in the name of defending American values. The connection between movie entertainment is too close to the historical racism alluded to off-screen, and in the case of Olympus Has Fallen, it reveals a disturbing domestic psyche.
Olympus Has Fallen is a movie about the White House (Secret Service code: Olympus) overrun by a group of Korean nationalists, who have also kidnapped the President and his Cabinet. Butler plays the one-man rescue team, aka Mike Banning, who has to save the President (Aaron Eckhart) before the Koreans retrieve the missile codes.
Marissa Lee at Racebending.com framed the racial dynamic behind the casting in Olympus Has Fallen as a yet another example of “the white nativist” vs. “perpetual foreigner” trope where “white is default ‘American’ while ‘Asian’ (and by extension, Asian American) is forever foreign,” despite the fact that Gerard Butler is Scottish by birth, and Rick Yune is a D.C. native.
“How many Americans can boast about being born in our nation’s capital?” Lee asks. “Yet, [Yune] is playing a terrorist invader trying to destroy Washington D.C., rather than the American patriot trying to save it. The privilege of playing that American hero goes to a white actor- because Hollywood’s institutional culture posits that any white actor is still more ‘American patriot’ than an Asian American actor.”
Why is it more likely that an Asian actor plays a villain rather than the hero in Hollywood movies? The answer to that question is bigger than this review, so let’s just focus on Rick Yune’s “villain” in Olympus Has Fallen for now. Yune’s character is often referred by the American government officials in the movie as “Kang” (a common Korean surname). We find out from the start that his interest is infiltrating, and defiling, the nation’s capital. He also wants to be taken to the nation’s leader. Hmm, does that sound kind of similar?
Seriously, it’s not just Yune playing a villain that is troubling. Yune has played villain many times before, often against white male protagonists. It’s also the portrayals of other Asian characters in Olympus Has Fallen as latent terrorists bent to destroy symbols of American culture.
It’s the one-dimensionality of not only a single character, but of an entire cast of characters of a particular race. All the Asian characters, except for the South Korean Prime Minister, are part of Kang’s terrorist cache. They storm and overtake the White House crudely and in a strange mixture of all the stereotypes normally associated with “insurgents” or “terrorists”: they are suicide bombers with bombs strapped to their chest; they are guerilla fighters dressed in civilian clothing with scarves wrapped around their faces; they are distinctly “foreign” because they speak mostly in subtitles. At one point, Banning tortures two Korean fighters for information, and when they laugh at him, he taunts them, “Do you speak English, huh? Because where I’m from, we’re taught English…”
That could be a bad line from any other bad action film, but Olympus Has Fallen stands out in two ways. It’s become a box-office success, at least domestically, despite initial projections, and it’s considered the comeback film for Gerard Butler’s career. One critic credited part of the movie’s success to the leading man, suggesting Butler was well-received because “he looked the part.”
Who does Butler “look” like? Film District, the movie’s distributor, found that 53% of the opening audience were males, and 75% were males over the age of 25, while pre-screenings at “cities with large military population” (Norfolk, Va., El Paso, Texas, and Honolulu) all “overperformed.” The way that technology and military codes are used in the movie betrays the anticipated demographics. While complex military operations and codes are barely explained, one of the movie’s most suspenseful moments occurs when Banning receives help from the war room to reset the missile launch codes, and he has to have the “hashtag” symbol explained to him.”Shift 3!” Angela Bassett’s character finally has to scream.
Depending on how well the movie is reviewed, the genre of the film changes. At its best, it’s called a political thriller; at its worst, it’s another generic action film. I found Olympus Has Fallen to be closer to The Manchurian Candidate (1962), but without all the qualities that made the latter a good film. What’s left, after you strip the story, the acting, and the writing, are the workings of a paranoid and frightened mind violently reacting against the inability to identify a clear domestic enemy. In lieu of that certainty, we have this movie establishing clear racial distinctions to determine who can be an American patriot, who can be a traitor, and who can be an enemy of the state.
The major “enemy of the American state” is Yune’s character Kang. Unlike the other Korean infiltrators, Kang represents the ultimate American nightmare of a domestic threat: he is well-dressed in a three-piece suit; he is bilingual; and he knows more about American history than most Americans do. The difference, and this is why Olympus Has Fallen is significant, is that it anticipates Kang as this villainous character. Looking at Kang’s appearance, he seems like any other upwardly mobile, well-educated Asian man in America – except that Olympus Has Fallen makes it clear that there is no place for Asian Americans in its cinematic portrayal of patriotism.