I live in the District of Columbia, where the vast majority of Olympus Has Fallen takes place, so my reaction to all its terrorist invasion imagery was visceral. When a character announces the army has evacuated all the buildings within a ten block radius of the White House, it includes my crummy apartment. Despite its ambitious setting, Olympus Has Fallen devolves into a cookie cutter action film where the few surprises and characters never move beyond their well-honed archetypes. Director Antoine Fuqua, who has never recaptured the gritty suspense of Training Day, shoots without an eye for fight choreography, which is a shame since our improbably badass hero beats up bad guys and not much else.
It opens with a strange, superfluous prologue. Inside Camp David, Secret Service agent Mike Banning (Gerard Butler) is friendly with the President (Aaron Eckhart), who goads his wife and son. The motorcade sets out in a snowstorm to attend a fundraiser, and the First Lady (Ashley Judd) dies in a car wreck. Eighteen months later and Banning still blames himself — he works at the Treasury Department instead of the White House now — but there is no time for self-loathing when the aerial assault begins. A rogue plane destroys two American jet fighters before it opens fire on the National Mall. More terrorists appear outside the north lawn, gunning down every Secret Service Agent in their path. It turns out the diplomat from South Korea is actually Kang (Rick Yune), an independent North Korean terrorist, and he takes the President hostage along with key members of his cabinet. Banning makes his way into the building, and it’s up to him to neutralize the threat.
The actual invasion sequence is compelling because it preserves the illusion of authenticity. Fuqua and his screenwriters must have researched all the security within the White House because it seems as if Kang’s plan is deadly, complete. The only thing that does stand up to scrutiny is the ease of the aerial assault: if a plane entered restricted airspace, fighters would not wait until northern Virginia to engage it. Still, I’m willing to suspend my disbelief since Fuqua wrings DC iconography of all its potential. When the Washington Monument collapses on itself, it resonates because the building is more than DC’s most famous tourist trap. Where Fuqua runs into trouble is when he veers into a by-the-numbers thriller, one that pales in comparison to the action movies that inspire it.
Die Hard is the most obvious precursor to Olympus Has Fallen, but Mike Banning is no John McClane. Butler’s performance is so bland that he amounts to little more than an action hero avatar. At first, Banning’s resourcefulness is promising: he knows all intricacies of the White House, so he’s able to grab an impressive cache of weaponry and use the building’s security systems to his advantage. Butler hits no note beyond badassery, and his penchant for brutality is only as interesting as the average video game. The action largely happens in the dark, and with Fuqua’s blunt editing, the fight choreography is muddled. It’s as if Butler and Fuqua have forgotten about the prologue; when the Speaker of the House (Morgan Freeman) becomes the acting President, the Secret Service Director (Angela Basset) vouches for Banning’s competence. In other words, the death of the First Lady is only there to put Banning out of the building when the invasion starts. What a waste of Ashley Judd, and of Butler’s character, who rises to the occasion without flaws or humanity.
There are two sub-plots that are within confines of a small room, yet the script does not know what to do with the accomplished cast. In the secret White House bunker, Kang and henchmen brutalize the President’s underlings. As the Secretary of State, the terrific Melissa Leo gets the shit kicked out of her and she says little more than “Fuck you” over and over. The President spends most of the movie with his hands bound to hand rail, and although he gives it his all, Eckhart cannot sell his character’s coiled anger. As for Kang, he’s somewhere between a sociopath and a dork; Fuqua makes the critical mistake when he casts a relative unknown as his bad guy. At least Air Force One’s Gary Oldman had some seething menace. But for all its tedium, the eye-rolling happens where the Speaker and the top military brass try to make sense of the situation. Freeman, Basset, and the others are there to provide exposition and context, not dramatic tension. By the time Freeman gravely intones, “[Kang] just opened the gates of hell,” even he cannot save the scene from self-parody.
When I saw Olympus Has Fallen, Fuqua and his cast were there for a post-screening Question and Answer session. Fuqua and Butler, who served as producers, patiently explained how the film is meant to honor the men and women whose duty is to guard the President and the White House every day. On that level, Olympus Has Fallen is a failure because it replaces the Secret Service’s devotion with bland heroics. By pandering to American values and our sense of patriotism, Fuqua and Butler cynically co-opt political rhetoric so that the film does not face the well-deserved scorn of every other bad Die Hard knock-off.