(by Dustin Putman
"Olympus Has Fallen" is brutal, disturbing, and deeply unsettling, a film so incessantly violent and evocative of 9/11 imagery (while, mind you, pretending that 9/11 never happened) that it makes the recent R-rated Sylvester Stallone film, "Bullet to the Head," sound like a blatant misnomer. Directed with undaunted panache by Antoine Fuqua (2007's "Shooter") and written with deep-seated clichés on the brain by Creighton Rothenberger and Katrin Benedikt, this action film—it's basically "Die Hard" in the White House—might have been more fun and less offensive had it been made in the 1980s or '90s. In 2013, however, it hits just a little too close to home to be brushed aside as mindless entertainment. Article continues below
Gerard Butler (2012's "Playing for Keeps") is well within his element as Mike Banning, a Secret Service agent for U.S. President Benjamin Asher (Aaron Eckhart) who blames himself for the tragic death of First Lady Margaret (Ashley Judd) in a Christmas Eve car accident near Camp David. Eighteen months later, Mike has demoted himself to an office job in the Treasury building and preoccupied himself to the detriment of his relationship with nurse wife Leah (Radha Mitchell). The current date is July 5, and as the White House prepares to welcome the South Korean foreign minister, North Korean terrorist Kang Yeonsak (Rick Yune) manages to slip onto the property while posing as a ministerial aide. Before long, D.C. is under full attack from both the ground and air as the White House is ambushed and the President and his team are held hostage. With Kang dead-set on extracting the three codes needed to launch nuclear weapons across the country, Mike—a former Special Forces operator—stealthily keeps under the radar. He's the only hope the country has for a savior, and he's not going to let Kang and his sociopathic cronies get away with their deadly plans.
Engrossing yet irresponsible, initially to-the-point before eventually becoming long-winded, "Olympus Has Fallen" is a motion picture of constantly dueling sides. Nary a moment is wasted before the central plot of a White House takeover and D.C. terrorist attack are underway, but what follows—an onslaught of murder and large-scale destruction, including graphic depictions of suicide bombings, brains being blown out, and landmarks being toppled over—is distasteful in a big way, causing the viewer to feel unclean as anyone who remember first-hand what September 11, 2001 was like are uncontrollably brought back to memories of that day. If the film had something of substance to say, something that couldn't be boiled down into an inane, flag-waving, "let's-all-join-together" rendition of "Kumbaya," then maybe it could have worked. As is, the first half is hateful in the way director Antoine Fuqua relishes in his on-screen carnage, while the second half—though too drawn-out—edges closer toward working its audience into submission. Matt's prowl through the dark corridors of the White House while kicking butt are gripping and well-shot, just as the standoff between Kang and the President's defiant cabinet is grittily effective.
Gerard Butler hasn't had a lot of box-office success since he hit it particularly big with 2007's "300," but he's a top-notch ordinary-guy-turned-action-hero and centers the piece well. As President Asher, Aaron Eckhart (2011's "Battle: Los Angeles") has the comforting yet commanding tone down pat of a nation's leader, but not a lot to do once he's tied up for a sturdy portion of the running time. More impressive is the chameleonic Melissa Leo (2010's "The Fighter"), such a convincing shape-shifter as fiercely loyal Secretary of Defense Ruth McMillan that the whole movie was spent marveling at how wonderful this unknown actress was (it wasn't until after the film was over that it was discovered it was Leo in the part). Morgan Freeman (2012's "The Dark Knight Rises") and Angela Bassett (2011's "Green Lantern") lend an air of consequence to their relatively inconsequential roles as Speaker of the House Allan Trumbull and Secret Service Director Lynne Jacobs, respectively, but they aren't nearly as memorable as Dylan McDermott's (2012's "The Campaign") threatening, sides-crossing turn as Dave Forbes, ex-Secret Service agent working security for the South Korean Prime Minister. As for Ashley Judd (2011's "Dolphin Tale"), her cameo as the ill-fated First Lady is perplexing; what could she have possibly seen in such a thankless part?
"Olympus Has Fallen" culminates in that old action-thriller stand-by of a ticking time clock that will signal the deaths of millions of people if it is not stopped. Earlier in the narrative, a man drops to his knees and screams out, "No!" to the heavens above. Despite what it may sound like, this material is treated seriously (with the exception of a few choice one-liners Mike delivers in the thick of things) and the ending is intended to be a bombastic, jingoistic middle finger to anyone who even thinks about harming our country in the future. The film is trite and shameless and, as mentioned, inappropriate, but there is a general point somewhere in the second act where one has no choice but to throw his or her hands up and go with it. Though the necessity of its existence is in question, "Olympus Has Fallen" is competently helmed, tense in spots, and moves at a speed that belies its wilting IQ. It does what it set out to do, but the question remains: did this story really need to be told at all, and right now?