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Hollywood Does North Korea

National Security Porn

by BINOY KAMPMARK

Sad it is to see a superpower recoil in paranoia at the perceived threats posed by its smaller enemies.  The quality of a foe determines the quality of the character who responds.  In the mad mash of suppositions and fantasies compiled in Antoine Fuqua’s Olympus Has Fallen, North Korea – or at the very least North Korean turncoats in the South Korean regime riding on the wings of nationalist vengefulness – become their American mirrors.  Their technology is supreme; their stamina and means to take control of such a structure as the White House is demonstrated.  They can even keep the President in a bunker under threat of execution.

These wicked Koreans also boast a few American defectors (believe it or not this is a war for fluffy minds and confused hearts) – one of the President’s secret service staff finds himself at some point in the film speaking of the ills of globalisation and the starvation of the DPRK.  Yes, apparently they talk like that.

Gerard Butler, who professed on British television that he has a toilet named after him in Michigan, has muscled in on the action as the patriotic hard man Michael Banning who ultimately rescues President Benjamin Asher, played by Aaron Eckhart in a severely trimmed role.  Banning so happens to be walking through the front door of the White House when the Korean terror cell launches its audacious strike in the capital.  He was, after all, a former secret agent shadowing the President.

What is troubling about the film is not the nonsensical violence, that great staple of the mindless macho.  It is, rather, the mammoth insecurity it seemingly bases itself upon, a screaming inner voice that the republic is brittle and up for grabs.  It is the terrorist fantasy made real, a sickly projection of what might happen to the “leader” of the free world if Brutus and Cassius, albeit of the oriental persuasion, got together to do a bit of killing.  It is not a film about strength so much as celebrated weakness, a psychotic pageantry of what might happen if the enemy within releases its poison. Trust no one, though if you did, best make sure he or she is draped in the stars and stripes.

Interestingly enough, the North Korean mastermind (the distinction is never clear) in this case is played by Rick Yune, an actor who made an effort most unconvincing in the Bond film Die Another Day as the villain Zao.  The North Koreans were not particularly convincing there either, but then again, nor are the opponents Butler faces.  Might this be an unconscious exposure of bumbling ineptitude on the part of Washington, typified by failed calculations of such magnitude as those of the Pentagon general played by Robert Forster?  These people are not only fantasists fearing internal insurrection.  They are also stumblers into the chasm of careless oblivion.

Other reviewers have their theories on how to read the film, though reading might be stretching the term. The film, for The Guardian’s Philip French, satisfied “the American audience’s rampant masochism and the foreign fans’ sadism” (Apr 21).  French has a point.  Such films do well even in countries with populations keen to mock the American brute. After all, we all know when the cavalry shall arrive.  This is well shown by a review such as Peter Osteried at gamona.de, who goes to far as to claim that Bruce Willis might have taken a few tips from the film.  Dare we ask?

Then there is the issue of where audiences will watch such a “brainless, brawny action thriller” in the words of Elizabeth Weitzman (New York Daily News, Mar 21).  Such films tend to thrive in air-conditioning.  Evidently, Weitzman had herself been affected by the air conditioning, claiming the siege to be “frighteningly real”.  To be fair, reason is restored by the end of the review, in which she notes that “every generation gets the move stars it deserves.”

The current crop of Hollywood films finds solace in a pressing condition of superhero masturbation in the face of improbable threat.  Enemies are hard to find, so they need a singular streak of gifted villainy.  GI Joe troops launch interventionist missions as physically taut and moral policemen (and women).  Bruce Willis persists in not dying harder than ever, a permanently indestructible celluloid presence.  Even his on screen offspring are heading for the Kleenex in the name of president and country.

As for the North Koreans, they also re-appear as the incorrigible invaders in the recently released Red Dawn (2012), a shameless remake of the 1984 film by the same name.  The Soviets have long left the psyche, but their protoplasmic traces find their way into desperate American moviemaking.  The ultranationalist Slav provides the ideal counter to the well-meaning American altruist who drinks the fluids of democracy for breakfast.  Let us ignore how the starved state, a terrified brutal regime in Pyongyang can keen to keep the motor running even as it takes US leaders hostage.

If enemies are to be invented, or found, let them at least be vaguely credible. What audiences are instead seeing is an Uncle Sam on the couch nursing masochistic nightmares and indignant insecurity.  What follows is surely, like the quality of acting, to be deserved, a vile sort of national security and terrorism porn, to use an apt expression coined by critic Till Kadritzke.

Binoy Kampmark was a Commonwealth Scholar at Selwyn College, Cambridge.  He lectures at RMIT University, Melbourne.  Email: bkampmark@gmail.com