When it was announced there would be two “Die Hard in the White House” movies coming to theaters in 2013, I chose sides quickly. The contenders: Olympus Has Fallen, directed by Antoine Fuqua, starring Gerard Butler and Aaron Eckhart; and White House Down, directed by Roland Emmerich, starring Channing Tatum and Jamie Foxx. Based on that information alone, the latter seemed like the “better” choice, and while that film still has a chance to surprise us (we haven’t even seen a trailer for it yet), I’m already confident in saying I made a huge mistake in my initial assessment. Olympus Has Fallen is brutal, insane, hilarious, and action-packed, and I hereby pledge my allegiance to it as one of the most ridiculously enjoyable movies of the year.
If you were to toss Die Hard, In the Line of Fire, and Air Force One into a blender and mix them, the result* would be Olympus Has Fallen, an absurd amalgam of action cliches so dumb and predictable that the movie really should be a total slog. But director Antoine Fuqua (Training Day), along with first-time writers Creighton Rothenberger and Katrin Benedikt, are able to cram so many brazen action sequences, jaw-dropping moments of unnecessary violence, and enjoyable one-liners into the story that it somehow ends up being a ton of fun.
Mike Banning (Gerard Butler) is an ex-Special Forces badass who works as a Secret Service agent and is buddy-buddy with President Asher (Aaron Eckhart). He’s tough – he boxes with the President in his spare time – but he has a soft side too, taking the President’s young son Connor under his wing and teaching him how to be a good Secret Service agent when he grows up. During the drive to a fundraising dinner on a stormy, snowy night, a car crash claims the life of the First Lady (Ashley Judd), but Banning is able to save Asher before he falls to his icy death too. The President doesn’t want to be reminded of his loss every time he sees Banning’s face, so he bumps him to a desk job at the Treasury Department, which is where the story picks up again eighteen months later.
Tensions are rising in Korea, and when the South Korean Prime Minister flies to DC to meet the President to discuss how to prevent nuclear war with the North, a terrorist seizes the moment to strike, indiscriminately firing on DC with machine guns from a massive airplane. During the ensuing chaos, suicide bombers and teams of well-trained mercenary-types breach the White House borders, so the President is taken to a locked-down safe room with the South Korean entourage in tow. But – shocker! – this attack is an inside job, orchestrated by a former Secret Service agent (who, if you’ve seen any movie like this before, you should peg as the villain within thirty seconds of seeing him) and the terrorist himself, posing as the Prime Minister’s head of security. Seeing the destruction in the streets outside, Banning shoots his way into the White House, making him the last and only hope to retrieve the President alive.
Butler is grim and grizzled as he blasts his way through the White House interior, and many of the film’s “oh sh*t” moments are because of his haphazard excessive violence toward the enemy soldiers. This guy doesn’t just shoot people – he stabs them in the head and doesn’t think a thing about it. He’s Jack Bauer reincarnate. The cultural conversation surrounding Zero Dark Thirty was dominated by the film’s stance on torture, but because Olympus Has Fallen is clearly not aiming for realism, this movie can use that hot button issue as a punchline: torture unquestionably works here, and Butler’s one-liners drew cheers from my audience as he threatened bad guys before dispatching them in the most violent ways he could.
Morgan Freeman shows up as the Speaker of the House, but isn’t given much to do. He’s there mostly to give the illusion of being someone important, to intone things like “My God” every few minutes, and be the Dramatic Voice On the Other End of the Phone while talking to Butler’s character while he’s stuck on the inside. (He’s essentially the Glenn Close character in Air Force One.) Eckhart is familiar with playing political characters after his turn as Harvey Dent in The Dark Knight, and he does a fine job looking angry and helpless here. Angela Bassett is barely there, and Melissa Leo even shows up for a small role as has a small role as the Secretary of Defense. Rick Yune (The Fast and The Furious) plays the villain, but this movie isn’t about the performances.
This is a movie that is unabashedly jingoistic, depicting American governmental officials as take-no-prisoners badasses who refuse to negotiate with terrorists; there’s a tiny message built in about how our own quest for nuclear supremacy could be our undoing, but it’s mostly lost among the spent bullet casings and bloody carnage. The villain’s justification for the takeover seems to consist solely of the angry phrase “globalization and f*cking Wall Street!” and this is the kind of movie where an explanation like that suffices just fine. It also seems designed to remind viewers of 9/11, with imagery like the Washington Monument being clipped by a plane (its debris killing tourists below) and a shredded American flag falling in slow motion, plus a gung-ho “rebirth” speech by the President when the dust finally settles.
Olympus Has Fallen is at its best when Gerard Butler is bludgeoning a mercenary to death with a bust of Abraham Lincoln. It’s that level of subtlety (read: zero) that makes the movie weirdly endearing. Though it probably won’t win any awards, for the most part Fuqua succeeds in crafting a successful action film, moving things along at a quick clip and making sure there are only a few minutes between action beats. By the end, though, the movie overstays its welcome by about twenty or thirty minutes. The brutal violence that was so shocking in the beginning becomes commonplace, removing its effectiveness as the film comes to a close. But overall, this movie knows exactly what it’s trying to be and fully embraces that vision, and even though it often toes the line between “straight-ahead action movie” and “parody,” it’s an enjoyable experience either way. Until next time…
*The result would more accurately be dozens of shattered DVD pieces in a broken blender, but go with me on this.