Action fans have been crying out to Hollywood for years to deliver something as gritty, heartfelt, and rip-roaring as 1988's Die Hard. Director Antoine Fuqua (Training Day, Shooter) has heard those calls and responded with Olympus Has Fallen, a close quarters, man-vs.-an-army thriller that gets it mostly right, thanks to star Gerard Butler's mix of swagger and innate brutality. Why it can't live up to Die Hard (what could?) is in the sensationalism of the scenario: in this version, an office building is the White House, the maniacal Hans Gruber replaced by an endless force of North Koreans bent on America's destruction. Fuqua makes the stealthy techniques of Butler's Agent Mike Banning exhilarating, but pads it with blockbuster-sized bookends and more bloodshed than your typical Saw flick. Think of Olympus Has Fallen as Die Too Hard.
After a routine mission goes horribly wrong, Secret Service agent Banning is relieved of his position as head of security for President Benjamin Asher (Aaron Eckhart). Years after the debacle, Banning finds himself thrown back into action when a group of North Korean terrorists strike D.C., hitting the White House from every direction. The introductory mayhem is one of the more gruesome set pieces in recent memory: a Korean plane swoops over D.C., firing hundreds of rounds into unsuspecting pedestrians; tourists photographing the White House rip off their coats to reveal machine guns, a frontline for the home invasion; unmarked vans throw open their doors, functioning as makeshift tanks that clear a path. It's all out war and Fuqua doesn't hold back in the reality department. The front row of the theater is a splash zone.
When the action finally hones in on Banning — who shoots his way from behind the gun-toting Korean soldiers to gain entry to the White House — Olympus Has Fallen uncovers real thrills. Butler sells the punches, the stealth, the one-liners, and the gruff patriotism — he's more Jack Bauer than John McClane, a guy who can and will do anything to accomplish the mission. You never doubt him, and even when Olympus swerves in the wrong direction — oh no, a kid lost in the White House subplot! — Butler forcefully grabs the steering wheel and drives it back on course. His character builds to make any absurdity fit the movie's mosaic of action, building with close combat attacks and an interrogation scene straight out of the 24 playbook, and escalating all the way to a bazooka shootout.
If only there was more of Butler in the movie. Olympus splits its time pretty evenly between Morgan Freeman and Angela Basset, government officials spouting every "My… God…" variation imaginable while managing the crisis from a boardroom, and Eckhart's President Asher, who spends a majority of the movie handcuffed to a railing. The terrorists bark threats of nuclear apocalypse, the suits in Washington react. It's all padding to Butler's main quest. Melissa Leo manages to light up the screen momentarily as the captured Secretary of Defense; at one point, she's dragged across the ground by her hair. Her response? Scream the Pledge of Allegiance in an act of defiance. As the movie often does, the scene crosses the disturbing line to circle all the way back to bizarre fun.
In front of the wrong pair of eyes, Olympus Has Fallen could be a provocation of jingoism. For fans looking for a slight actioner with slick production value and a Hungry-Man serving of machismo, it's passable fun. Just don't take the image of the Washington Monument being shot to bits, smashing into helpless American citizens into puddles of blood, as a call to arms.
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[Photo Credit: Film District]