By Gary Dowell
Die Hard in the White House with a little 24 and even some Under Siege thrown in for good measure, Olympus Has Fallen is possible the dumbest of the big, dumb, and loud action movies released so far this year. (G.I. Joe: Retaliation opens next week, however.) Action films by their very nature require us to suspend disbelief — or to just flat-out beat it into submission beforehand — but the premise and plot twists of Olympus are so damned ridiculous that it borders on epic fantasy with gratuitous gunplay. That action director Antoine Fuqua rose above The Replacement Killers and a slew of straight-to-video schlock to deliver Training Day before backsliding into this dreck is one of the most disappointing career arcs in Hollywood.
Gerard Butler brings his best intense glare as Mike Banning, a Secret Service agent who rescues President Ben Asher (Aaron Eckhardt) from a mishap involving the presidential motorcade, but who is unable to save the First Lady (Ashley Judd). Flash forward 18 months: Banning has been reassigned to the Treasury Department. In an eerie bit of timeliness, a delegation of South Korean dignitaries arrive at the White House at a time when relations between it and North Korea are particularly strained.
The talks are quickly interrupted by a rogue AC-130 gunship that proceeds to strafe the White House and much of the surrounding area. It’s the first wave of an attack by North Korean terrorists led by Kang Yeonsak (Rick Yune) that culminates in the POTUS, Vice President, and Secretary of Defense being held hostage in the fortified bunker located beneath the building.
Naturally, Banning is in the right place at the wrong time, and becomes the only friendly operative in position to save the day, dispatching bad guys via stabbings, headshots, and the occasional neck-breaking, in between rounds of bickering with his boss (Angela Bassett), the Speaker of the House-turned-acting President (Morgan Freeman), and the head of the Joint Chiefs (Robert Forster). Radha Mitchell also stars as his long-suffering spouse, a nurse whose reason for being in the movie is anyone’s guess, as that plot thread goes nowhere. Melissa Leo, Dylan McDermott, and Cole Hauser are also underutilized in what amounts to one of the biggest wastes of talent since Les Miserables.
Yes, it’s supposed to be jingoistic escapism, but fans of military/political thrillers tend to be sticklers for detail, and Olympus Has Fallen fumbles big time in that regard. It’s brought down by the kind of lazy, formulaic screenwriting that sets up a shaky premise by having only two jets dispatched to intercept an unidentified gunship violating the White House’s airspace, every cop and federal agent on Pennsylvania Avenue charge into a hail of gunfire like lemmings with Glocks and badges, and allowing control of the nation’s nuclear weapons to be usurped by convenient access to the passcodes. (Did we learn nothing from War Games?)
Worst of all, the tone is oppressively grim and borderline sadomasochistic in its blasé approach to brutality and mass destruction. Pre-9/11 this sort of thing functioned as escapism; these days, it’s in poor taste.