“Olympus” is the secret service code name for the White House, and my, how it falls in director Antoine Fuqua’s Olympus Has Fallen, the first of two White House invasion thrillers to be released this year; Roland Emmerich’s White House Down hits Prague screens in July.
I imagine that film, from the director of Independence Day and 2012, will provide some dumb fun. That’d be a relief coming after Olympus, a Die Hard knockoff that is too silly to be taken seriously, but too serious-minded to be any fun. I felt drained by the end of this movie, and relieved that the experience was over.
For what it is, however, it’s mostly well-done, and a huge improvement over 2013’s actual Die Hard movie, the risible A Good Day to Die Hard. Director Fuqua (Training Day, Shooter, Brooklyn’s Finest) has an excellent grasp of pacing and story mechanics; once the film gets going, it never lets up, and the two-hour runtime never feels long. Undemanding action fans will be more than satisfied.
After a heavy-handed prologue that establishes the relationship between secret service agent Mike Banning (Gerard Butler) and President Benjamin Asher (Aaron Eckhart), the action begins with a nigh-ridiculous assault on downtown D.C. as a North Korean aircraft swoops into Washington and begins shooting up the place.
The target? Random civilians on the ground, apparently, who are mowed down by the dozens in shot after shot before the plane turns its sights on the Washington Monument. The ground attack begins next, as a small North Korean assault team – disguised as a group of tourists – starts wiping out the secret service on the lawn of the White House.
Thirteen minutes later – a time referenced with pride by terrorist leader Kang (Rick Yune) – and Olympus has fallen with incredible ease. This sequence should be dynamite (despite some shoddy CGI), and it’s mostly well done, though the staging is scattershot, and the action isn’t always as clear as it should be. But it’s also incredibly implausible – I mean, the US doesn’t even seem to pose a threat against a handful of terrorists.
What do the terrorists want? Why, for US forces to pull out of the DMZ, Kang informs the acting president (Morgan Freeman) as he holds the real one hostage, along with other high-ranking officials, in the bunker of the White House. And while they can’t get missile launch codes, which are changed at the point of crisis, they can get missile self-destruct codes (with enough torture and intimidation), which can then be used to…
Now, the president seems like a nice enough guy and all, but really: if it’s me, I’d just blow up the damn White House at this point and it’s all over. Is a handful of lives worth risking the welfare of the entire country? But waitaminute. I forgot about the One Man who will slip in, undetected, and proceed to single-handedly eliminate the terrorist threat and save the day, while atoning for a past mistake and solidifying his relationship with his girlfriend (Radha Mitchell) in the process.
Now, this sounds like silly stuff, and the script (by first time scribes Creighton Rothenberger and Katrin Benedikt) most certainly is. But Olympus Has Fallen also has a surprisingly nasty streak, with graphic on-camera executions, torture, violence against women, and lots and lots of blood.
I felt uneasy while watching the film, not because of the violence but because of the way it’s used; there are hundreds of on-screen deaths here, but the film is neither a mindless Commando-like actioner nor a violence-probing revenge drama a la Death Wish; instead, it queasily straddles the middle ground, wanting to deliver cheap thrills without realizing the effect of their graphic depiction. If the intent was to rile us up in order for an extra-satisfying finale, well, the film doesn’t pay off on that level, either.
Olympus Has Fallen is full of non-stop action and competently put together, even if the effects are sometimes rough, and the White House locales (shot in Louisiana) don’t always feel right. The cast, which also features Robert Forster, Dylan McDermott, Ashley Judd, Angela Bassett, Melissa Leo, and Cole Hauser – is solid, though Gerard Butler isn’t my idea of an action hero (or maybe he’s just made one too many awful rom-coms over the past few years). Action fans will be satisfied, but I left this one with a bad taste in my mouth.