Hey look! It's another big, dumb action movie with Gerard Butler! Well, that's a stretch better than another small, dumb romantic comedy with Gerard Butler. Truth be told, he's actually quite good when called upon to do nothing more than spout one-liners while taking out scores of bad guys. It worked for him in 300, and it works for him again in Olympus Has Fallen, a ridiculous but frequently thrilling action blitzkrieg.
Butler seems to have found a brother-in-arms with director Antoine Fuqua, together putting together a film that is bombastic, exploitative, and at times sobering. Those sobering moments are heavily frontloaded in order to make room for lots of blood and stuff blowing up, but that doesn't make them any less effective. Secret Service agent Mike Banning (Butler) is perhaps a little too close to President Ben Asher (Aaron Eckhart) and his family, boxing with the Commander-in-Chief and sharing words of wisdom with his son. A Presidential motorcade on a snowy winter night leads to tragedy when Mike is forced to save Asher from an accident, but at the expense of the First Lady (Ashley Judd). Disgraced, Mike is sent down to a menial desk job in the Treasury Department, wanting desperately to get back on the President's detail and into the action.
Of course he gets his wish moments later, because that's just how these films work. And as expected, he gets far more than he bargains for. A hurtling airplane signals the end of the Greek tragedy aspect of the film, and when it clips off a big chunk of the Washington Monument, Fuqua might as well hold up a sign that reads "Hold on to your butts!!" At this point, anybody who has a soft spot for servicemen or a natural aversion to screen violence may want to go refill their soda. What unfolds is about a 20-minute orgy of mesmerizing, immaculately constructed violence where armed North Koreans posed as tourists unload an entire arsenal of weaponry on the White House. Using everything at their disposal and employing a guerilla-style strategy to upset the Service's technical efficiency, agents get mowed down in the hundreds. Exploding into overblown, blockbuster-sized marvel where the White House literally converts into a fully-armed bunker, the film from this point on jettisons any thoughts of being grounded. Time to blow sh*t up!
Within a manner of minutes the White House is overtaken, the President and his Cabinet held captive, and his son vanished into the building's secret corridors. The stellar supporting cast includes the ever-stately Morgan Freeman as the Speaker of the House, pressed into duty as the new acting President. Freeman apparently can't catch a break, but at least the entire world isn't in jeopardy like it was in Deep Impact. Melissa Leo, always fantastic and a firebrand in most films, lives up to that reputation as the Secretary of Defense, the target of much physical abuse at the hands of the terrorists' leader, played by The Man with the Iron Fist's Rick Yune.
Like a John McTiernan film on steroids, Olympus Has Fallen follows a familiar "kill all of the bad guys" model. Butler, clearly influenced by Bruce Willis, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Sylvester Stallone and others of the macho era, plays Banning as the quintessential kind-hearted tough guy. Ruthless to his enemies but a teddy bear to kids, Banning rips through the Korean forces while making the President's son his chief priority. But unlike the utterly humorless A Good Day to Die Hard, the catchy one-liners actually work, perhaps because Willis doesn't seem to give a damn anymore. In one particularly memorable exchange, Banning tells the terrorist leader, "Let's play a game of F**k Off. You go first." I'll take that over "Yippee Ky-Yay" any day.
But the film does have a few problems which plagued the fifth Die Hard film. While the premise is designed to make us root for the heroic, patriotic hero to smash his foes and save the day, the film is so over-the-top brutal that some may find it hard to connect. Benefiting to some degree by North Korea's recent headlines, the villains are nonetheless stock bad guys, ruthless yet cartoonishly overconfident.
Fuqua's claim to fame will probably always be 2001's Training Day, and he's been a directorial gun-for-hire ever since. He acquits himself well, proving to be more than capable of huge spectacles of the summer season variety. Olympus Has Fallen isn't looking to reinvent the wheel, but that's never really the point. It's more than enough to get the stuff we want exactly right.