One man ultimately fights alone - against seemingly insurmountable odds and an overwhelming number of terrorist adversaries who have taken a well known building and it's inhabitants hostage. Along the way, our hero gets beaten, battered and pummeled in his seemingly doomed effort to save the day.
Sounds a lot like Bruce Willis in the original "Die Hard", right ?
Perhaps. However, while the new action film, "Olympus Has Fallen" has undoubtedly cribbed more than a few very familiar plot points from the Willis franchise, as well as from a season or two of TV's acclaimed spy drama "24"; this highly charged and enjoyable adventure is everything Willis' last "Die Hard" film should have been, but wasn't.
Director Antoine Fuqua ( Training Day ) takes a familiar premise, but ups the entertainment ante by giving us a film that's more than just packed with plenty of riveting, though surprisingly violent, action sequences that are guaranteed to serve up some thrills. While "Olympus Has Fallen" is certainly derivative of plenty of similar "one man against the odds" action films; Fuqua also gives us a film that's driven by a hero, and some supporting players, that are more than just pawns reacting amid the explosive mayhem. The key characters are actually people with some measure of dimension and qualities that make you care about them amid the carnage and chaos.
That's partly where Willis' last film, "A Good Day To Die Hard" lost it's punch. His cocky John McClane had devolved into simply a rote and cynical parody of his earlier self. The film was also filled with too many over the top action sequences, dangerous situations and deadly episodes that McClane seemed both physically and emotionally invulnerable to suffer from.
John McClane had become a cold-blooded, uncaring and unlikable bore.
By contrast, "Olympus Has Fallen" gives us a hero in former Secret Service agent Mike Banning ( Gerard Butler ) whose motivated by more than just racking up the body count like a video game. The film's prologue sets the stage for several layered and multi-dimensional relationships and characterizations that make this film enjoyable, in addition to it's formidable on-screen action firepower.
President Benjamin Asher ( Aaron Eckhart ) and his beloved wife, Margaret ( Ashley Judd ) are prepping to depart Camp David for a political Christmas party on a heavily snowy night. Secret Service agent, Banning ( Butler ) is the President's most trusted guardian and friend, not only to the President and the First Lady; but also, their young son, Connor ( Finley Jacobsen ) who clearly admires Banning. While Connor asks to ride to the party with Banning in one of the agent escort cars; the President and his wife exchange cherished Christmas gifts in the backseat of their limo en route to the event. However, a freak accident on the icy road results in some drastic and tragic decision making on Banning's part to save the President; that will haunt both in the months to come; as well as Banning being reassigned to a desk job at the Treasury.
Fast forward 18 months and Banning is bored with his reassignment and tries to get his Secret Service boss ( Angela Bassett ) to get him back on the detail protecting the President. Meanwhile, tensions between North and South Korea are threatening to boil over as troops on both sides of the Korean DMZ begin to mobilize. When the President prepares to meet with the South Korean Prime Minister at the White House to diffuse the tensions, the unthinkable happens.
In a spectacularly staged, albeit audaciously unlikely, fast-paced sequence of events, a rogue North Korean terrorist group manages to brutally and violently lay siege to the White House itself and it's surroundings from both the air and Front Lawn grounds. Within minutes, the White House security staff is all but wiped out and the President is whisked to the security bunker hundreds of feet below the building. Meantime, Banning sees the siege taking place on the White House grounds and joins in the firefight, only to eventually find himself inside the now captured presidential refuge as literally the last man standing.
Matters only get worse when it's discovered the President and members of his key staff are now being held captive inside the impenetrable bunker by the Korean terrorists who managed to secretly infiltrate the Prime Minister's entourage and protective inner circle long before. Led by a vengeful USA hating terrorist named Kang ( Rick Yune ), the terrorists demand US ground and naval forces immediately withdraw from the Korean peninsula or the President and his captive staff will be executed one by one. Adding to the intrigue, the terrorists also are demanding the President turn over the codes to a secret defense system that could threaten to detonate all of our nation's nuclear missiles in their silos and incinerate the entire country.
From here, it's a race against the clock for Manning to discover what the terrorists true end game is and to stop it. He also has to find the President's young son who is hiding somewhere within the White House before the terrorists find him first; who hope to use his young life as leverage against the Commander-In-Chief.
"Olympus Has Fallen" is rife with familiar action tropes including a literal "cliff-hanger" in the early going. However, director Fuqua keeps the action moving at such a wildly fun and exciting pace, the "been there, seen that before" aspects of the film are as forgivable as they are entertaining. The screenplay also takes a few risks by playing out some scenes that come close to tapping into our darker post-9/11 memories and current, perhaps legitimate, fears of another such horrific day. It's no spoiler to divulge, as seen in the film's trailers, one scene depicts a massive plane slicing into the Washington Monument during the White House assault, resulting in some unnervingly familiar imagery that's more than a tad reminiscent of 9/11.
Whether Fuqua is exploiting real life tragedy for action entertainment is up for debate. However, there's no doubt the action is effectively choreographed, fast paced and stunningly staged.
Where "Olympus Has Fallen" excels, even as a rote action film, is in the characters. Butler's lone secret service agent isn't simply a killing machine who sole aim is to dispatch the villains with bloody impunity. Though, he indeed does that in spades throughout the film, while realistically taking a beating himself in the process. He's also motivated by a genuine friendship and duty to the president, a protective affection for the Commander-In-Chief's son and a desire to once again prove himself worthy of the position of presidential protector that he once cherished.
Fuqua also pulls a couple of pleasant surprises where we think he's going to follow suit with every anticipated trope from the action film handbook. As one key hostage is released to a fate that the movie audience is certain going to end in familiar fashion, director Fuqua pulls an unexpected fast one on our expectations. The matter of the president's son being in danger is quickly resolved midway through the film, getting him out of the way so Banning can get down to his bloody business of rescuing the president in effectively deadly fashion.
Gerard Butler turns in a performance that's an entertaining mix of cocky bravado mixed with some emotional vulnerability. His Mike Banning is "Die Hard's" John McClane for a new generation sans the delightfully profane catch-phrases. Make no mistake, Butler's Mike Banning is a brutally efficient killing machine when he's angrily dispatching his prey with truly bloody abandon. "Olympus Has Fallen" literally takes no prisoners on the bloody violence quotient.
Aaron Eckhart is a decent enough Commander-In-Chief in a limited role that, once he's captured, requires little more than reacting in restrained outrage as his cabinet members are killed and brutally abused. Morgan Freeman, while very effective as a conflicted tough talking politician, risks becoming a parody of himself by once again playing the President - albeit the Speaker of the House as "acting" President in this case.
How many times has Freeman played the President on-screen by now ?
Ashley Judd presents a nicely stellar touch to the film despite her limited screen time that gives the President and First Lady's relationship some effective nuance to set the stage for events to follow.
Granted, "Olympus Has Fallen" has it's fair share of flaws. While I didn't mind the clearly derivative nature of the plot line; some may find it simply an unnecessary retread of familiar ground. Also, the film requires a fair amount of suspension of belief in the plausibility of the assault on the White House by dozens of terrorist attackers. As bad as the TSA is these days, it's highly unlikely so many rogue Koreans could get past even the most careless of airport security and then stage the film's complex attack without someone discovering the plan in advance.
After all, we've caught potential terrorists with bombs in their shoes and underwear in recent years, for cryin' out loud.
Still, with "Olympus Has Fallen", director Antoine Fuqua stages the improbable in such a satisfyingly exciting fashion; you forget about the sheer implausibility of the events and delightfully get caught up in the thrilling bombast of it all.
Tim Estiloz is a member of The Broadcast Film Critics Association and The Boston Online Film Critics Association. Follow Tim on Twitter @TimEstiloz and at www.TimEstiloz.com. - Be sure to LIKE his page on Facebook at: Tim Estiloz Film Reviews.