Antoine Fuqua’s “Olympus Has Fallen” might be the most patriotic movie ever that makes Americans look blazingly incompetent. Here we have a plot that sees a band of North Koreans launch a blistering attack on the White House by sea and air, one that kills hundreds and results in the capture of the president (Aaron Eckhart) within minutes. Thematically, “Olympus Has Fallen” is a strange beast, a violent slice of jingoism that salutes America as it simultaneously suggests that the nation’s bureaucrats, police, military, and intelligence services are all mind-bogglingly inept.
It’s to Fuqua’s credit as a stager of action and suspense that “Olympus Has Fallen” isn’t a complete debacle. By dint of the director’s admirably workman violence and understanding that material this dumb needs fast pacing, “Olympus Has Fallen” moves at an admirable clip. Once the plot gets set in motion with an elaborate, lengthy attack sequence, it bounces from one American military fiasco to the next with dutiful aplomb, plunging the world into a crisis that can only be stopped by One Man, as in the One Man played by the cast’s toughest looking star (Gerard Butler).
As the first of two “Die Hard in the White House” films this year, coming before Roland Emmerich’s “White House Down,” “Olympus Has Fallen” does make some apt use of the scenario. Fuqua and Co. get a lot of mileage out of torching the famous scenery, with the camera often lingering on images of destruction while the soundtrack blasts solemn orchestra music. It’s effective filmmaking, with certain moments proving engrossing and even startling as they unfold. The iconography mingles with the silly in a way that’s undeniably riveting, albeit never so much that anything passes a logic test afterwards.
Perhaps there’s unintended commentary here on how contemporary audiences see their politicians, as we’ve come a long way from political thrillers like “Day of the Jackal,” where the potential death of a world leader was a subject taken somewhat seriously. Now, that possibility simply makes for routine action fodder; the president and his staff are terrorized for easy kicks.
Fuqua and screenwriters Creighton Rothenberger and Katrin Benedikt don’t go light on the national trauma, as the film not only includes the capture of the president, but also the destruction of the Washington Monument and the murder of a great number of senior officials, all in addition to the continued failure of anyone other than the aforementioned John McClane clone to offer serious resistance.
The terrorists, led by a fellow with the cool moniker Kang (Rick Yune), want to see the U.S. withdraw from the Korean peninsula, leading to a lot of rhetoric that subscribes to the fantasy that South Korea would be conquered by the North in hours were it not for 28,000 American troops on the 38th parallel. They’ve captured not only the president, but much of his staff, including the Secretary of Defense, played by Melissa Leo as if it were in her contract that only her hammiest takes be used. While negotiations get underway with the Speaker of the House (Morgan Freeman), the McClane clone runs around the White House, snapping necks, slitting throats, and generally shooting the place up.
That man is Butler’s Mike Banning, and like Bruce Willis’ most famous character, he slinks around a terrorist-ridden building, picking off bad guys one at a time, gradually deducing the details of their evil scheme. The primary difference is that Butler’s hero is, like “Olympus Has Fallen”‘s own blah sense of patriotism, uncolored by moral or personal complexity. Butler, whose post-“300” career has seen him take on everything but a hit, deserves blame for the bland Banning not as an actor, as he handles the look and tone of the man well, but as a producer who was in a position to insist on something more interesting. There’s a potentially fascinating contrast in the way that Banning demonstrates a kind touch with the president’s son and then later guiltlessly tortures and executes captured terrorists, but that kind of complexity is never explored.
“Olympus Has Fallen,” after seeing America suffer a catastrophe that at least symbolically would dwarf 9/11, ends with a shot of a sunlit American flag blowing gently in the breeze, as if the competence and perseverance of Americans had been saluted throughout. That couldn’t be farther from the truth: the inevitable U.S. victory is a fluke entirely attributable to a lone Secret Service agent. Truly thrilling for an American audience this film is not, though it does speak very highly of the ingenuity and bravery of North Koreans.