'Olympus Has Fallen': 'Die Hard' with a Butler
By Glenn Kenny, Special to MSN Movies
I suppose that "It's 'Die Hard,' only in the White House!" will serve as a cogent synopsis of this purposefully bombastic action thriller, and the call is obvious enough that I'm sure I won't be the first reviewer to use it. And for all I know, it's how this movie was pitched in the Hollywood boardroom. The shame of it is, "Olympus Has Fallen" could have been so much more.
Just kidding. It could not have been. One of the handful of admirable things about this movie is that it knows exactly why it's blowing stuff up and serving up satisfyingly faux-cathartic killings of bad guys who have a seemingly unconquerable upper hand on the noble and crafty lone good guy.
The movie begins with a riff lifted obliquely from a better thriller than this one, "In the Line of Fire." Ace Secret Service dude Mike Banning (Gerard Butler) is so pally with President Benjamin Asher (Aaron Eckhart) that he actually spars with him, and he's also a buddy and role model to Asher's young son, Connor (Finley Jacobsen), who's studying the layout of his current residence, 1600 something, with the attentiveness of a future security ace. A snowy night's accident throws everyone's relationship into disarray, and a year and change later, Mike, haunted by the feeling that he could have done more, is off the prez's detail and bored at a desk job at the Treasury Department and distracted in his dealings with his wife (Radha Mitchell). Until ...
Well, until a cadre of super-evil North Korean villains stage an elaborate invasion of the White House and take the president and his staff hostage in a bunker below the venerated structure. How they pull this off is a matter of military precision and lots and lots of unmitigated slaughter, which director Antoine Fuqua depicts in unsparing detail. Much property damage also ensues, calling to mind the Golden Age sci-fi great "Earth vs. the Flying Saucers" more than the more recent destroy-every-major-city epic "Independence Day." That's kind of enjoyable. But then there's a cutaway to a tourist whose arm's been cut off, and, yuck. All this is done, I presume, to underscore the particularly ruthless villainy of head villain Rick Yune, the Hans Gruber of the piece. The over-the-top depiction of the movie's Asian bad guys is frankly kind of amazing in this day and age, as it's the sort of stuff you would have thought went out with Fu Manchu movies. Seriously, it's nasty.
After the nefarious schemes of the invaders get under way (and these schemes just get more nefarious as the movie goes on), suspense builds as to whether presidential son Connor will be found and taken hostage by the marauders (in which case the game is up, for various reasons) or rescued first by Mike, who's just passing by -- good for the U.S.A. -- as the bad stuff's starting to go down. Yea, he's found by Mike -- now the movie can turn into "Die Hard" crossed with "Home Alone," only in the White House! But no -- some nervous exec must have expressed concern over a kid being party to the horrible, terrible things Mike does to ensure American honor triumphs at the end of "Olympus Has Fallen." Were the objections moral, or did the exec look at the numbers for "Kick-Ass"? (Wait a minute. "Kick-Ass" is getting a sequel!) Either way, it was a poor move, as it determined the movie was going to end up that much more generic.
And, its sometimes jaw-dropping sadism aside, generic it is, from its all-star supporting cast (Angela Bassett, Robert Forster and Morgan Freeman, who plays a congressman who ends up acting as president, because he's Morgan Freeman ... um, no, because he's speaker of the House) playing "We're in the 500th remake of 'Fail Safe'" in an admittedly spiffy war room set to the frequent American flag imagery to the various real-life news media personalities flushing their cred down the toilet with the most risible phony news updates of this century's cinema thus far.
Yes, the action is often not unengaging, and Butler's better at swinging for faux Bruce Willis than he is trying to reproduce Mel Gibson's results in "What Women Want" (a terrible idea on first principles, but given his recent run of awful rom-coms, I can't think of what else he could be doing). Action movie junkies ought to be satisfied, but even they may not like themselves so well in the morning.
Glenn Kenny is chief film critic for MSN Movies. He was the chief film critic for Premiere magazine from 1998 to 2007. He contributes to various publications and websites, and blogs at http://somecamerunning.typepad.com. He lives in Brooklyn.