In 1997, a small town in the Pacific Northwest and the city of Los Angeles were threatened by the sudden eruption of volcanoes in Dante’s Peak and Volcano. A year later, the Earth is nearly destroyed by two cataclysmic asteroids in Deep Impact and Armageddon. In 2013, the White House is in jeopardy not once, but twice. Roland Emmerich will direct Channing Tatum and Jamie Foxx in White House Down, which will be released in June by Sony. Meanwhile, Millennium Films and FilmDistrict have beaten them to the punch with Olympus Has Fallen.
One snowy night, President Benjamin Asher (Aaron Eckhart) is on his way to a Christmas fundraiser when an accident causes his limo to swerve off a bridge. Secret Service Agent Mike Banning (Gerard Butler) saves the President’s life, but is unable to save the First Lady (Ashley Judd). Over a year later, Banning is still haunted by his failure and exiled to a desk job at the Treasury Department. He races back into action when the nation’s capital is attacked during a meeting between President Asher and the South Korean Prime Minister. In the film’s most gripping and prolonged set piece, a cargo plane outfitted with Gatling guns literally causes monumental destruction. Not since Earth vs. the Flying Saucers has the Washington Monument suffered such damage. Garbage trucks doubling as armored vehicles roll up Pennsylvania Avenue while a blitzkrieg of armed assailants (disguised as tourists) breach the White House lawn killing dozens of security personnel and police responders. The ringleader is Kang (Rick Yune), a wanted terrorist who has infiltrated the South Korean government. He takes the President, V.P. (Phil Austin), Secretary of Defense (Melissa Leo), and other key members of staff hostage inside an underground bunker. Of course, there’s only one man who can save them…Mike Banning.
If the plot sounds familiar, it’s because Olympus Has Fallen is yet another graduate from the school of Die Hard with the White House standing in for Nakatomi Plaza. The similarities are so prominent and frequent that screenwriters Creighton Rothenberger and Katrin Benedikt (in their first credit) could be charged with outright plagiarism. Gerard Butler leaps off an exploding rooftop while a helicopter crashes behind him. He also taunts the villain over radio with tired one-liners (“Let’s play a game of fuck off. You go first.”). There’s a scene where Banning bumps into one of the bad guys who pretends to be a frightened good guy. Banning’s warnings against a foolhardy attempt at breaching the terrorists’ defenses fall on deaf ears. Not to mention In the Line of Fire already did the Secret Service agent in search of redemption to greater effect.
Realizing the inherently silly nature of their film, the producers have loaded their supporting cast with actors who can effortlessly convey dramatic gravitas. The obligatory command center scenes feature Angela Bassett as the head of Secret Service and Morgan Freeman as the Speaker of the House now the acting president. Robert Forster portrays a hard-assed general who fills the role of Deputy Police Chief Dwayne T. Robinson. Dylan McDermott makes a scenery chewing appearance as a turncoat agent though Rick Yune fails to lend anything memorable as the lead villain. Radha Mitchell gets a rather thankless role as Banning’s worried wife. Aaron Eckhart is perfectly cast as the defiant authority figure and it’s nice to see Gerard Butler in an action flick after doing so many terrible romantic comedies.
Antoine Fuqua is a solid action director, but aside from the opening salvo on D.C., there are not a lot of spectacular sequences. The majority of the film takes place inside a darkened White House, one that’s so dark that you can hardly see any of the fights or shootouts. The darkness may have been to just hide the poor choreography or subpar CGI.
Olympus shamelessly exploits post-9/11 anxiety and xenophobia. Some viewers will be turned off at watching an airplane crash into a landmark as debris crushes people below it. The movie tries to have its cake and eat it too with terrorists that are clearly North Korean while straining to portray them as having no allegiance. These themes are only re-enforced by an overblown “America, Fuck Yeah,” attitude, including one character defiantly reciting the Pledge of Allegiance as they are dragged and beaten.
Olympus Has Fallen plays as mindless, red meat entertainment in spite of its queasy politics and thoroughly derivative script right down to a climatic countdown in massive, bold numbers. Although it’s a blatant knockoff, Olympus is actually more enjoyable than the latest Die Hard sequel.