White House Needs a Die-Hard Hero in Daft, Brutal 'Olympus'

Directed by: Antoine Fuqua; Runtime: 120 minutes
Grade: C+

Imagine John McClane trapped in the White House trying to save the President (and, y'know, scrambling to prevent global warfare), and you'd pretty much have Olympus Has Fallen, Antoine Fuqua's guns-blazin' boilerplate blockbuster about a surgical foreign invasion on United States soil. To say that it's superior to the recent Red Dawn remake or the latest installment in the Die Hard franchise, A Good Day to Die Hard, isn't saying too much, but it should fill any empty voids of enthusiasm left by those subpar productions. On the other hand, what Fuqua has crafted here also insistently capitalizes on fear-mongering as blustering entertainment, where it tries to depict a siege of the United States' bastion of leadership and stability in a practical manner ... with a swath of bullets and explosions, of course. While the artillery-heavy siege itself is reasonably polished and the performances dutifully fulfill their patriotic demands, the stakes of this austere cautionary tale ultimately ring too hollow to take anything but the action very seriously.

Taking up the mantle of the roguish anti-hero is estranged Secret Service agent Mike Banning (Gerard Butler), who was dismissed from his protective detail of US President Benjamin Asher (Aaron Eckhart) after he made a tough, somewhat questionable decision in a life-or-death situation. Fast-forward a year and a half to where a stand-offish Banning has taken a desk job, struggling to maintain a healthy relationship and social life in the aftermath of the incident. On the morning of a summit meeting with Korean dignitaries, the White House comes under fire by foreign terrorists, leaving the President and his guests -- as well as the President's son, Connor -- under siege. Through a bit of happenstance and devotion to his former position, Banning finds himself as the only person with the intel and vantage point to be able to evacuate the President and thwart the motive of his captors, which revolves around the enduring overseas conflict in Korea.

Following the obligatory emotional set-up at the beginning of Olympus Has Fallen, serving as the core of Banning's reclusive attitude, the script from newcomers Creighton Rothenberger and Katrin Benedikt takes obvious cues from the likes of Die Hard, The Rock, and Speed in how a loose-cannon agent might thwart a confined and tactically-demanding act of terror. Of course, the difference lies in the setting, using the hefty security and emotional gravity behind the White House -- and the President -- as its high-stakes framework. Director Fuqua and his writers would like for the situation to appear moderately genuine, but there's a distinct lack of credibility driving some of the plans and reactions that occur, such as Banning's ability to manipulate the White House's security measures a year-plus after his "dismissal". Best to check one's brain at the blown-apart door, especially when the film falls back on its alarmist focus on the Korean conflict and the US government's iffy decision-making as the root of its suspense.

Once you've conceded to its shortcomings and a mere semblance of authenticity, there's a certain vintage R-rated charm to the way Olympus Has Fallen plays out, with nothing but a ballsy renegade's ingenuity and gradually-acquired artillery as the keys to conquering the odds in "America's house". This isn't a bright, gleeful blockbuster, either: violent beatings and public executions punctuate the siege with a grueling edge, while the potential for nuclear war breaking out hangs in the balance. What it needs is the sardonic, gruff voice of an antihero to lighten the grim tension, which Gerard Butler kinda-sorta accomplishes as Banning. Director Fuqua insists on this stern demeanor similarly to that of Training Day and his take on King Arthur, so there's only so much Butler can do with a hero in need of redemption. His moments of defiance grasp enough gung-ho sarcasm to meet those demands, though I would've dug more of the gristle he shows in Machine Gun Preacher. The performances around him are equally semi-serviceable, from Aaron Eckhart's fraught presidential composure to Morgan Freeman's brief authoritative candor as the Speaker of the House.

As Banning navigates the dark maze of the White House's corridors and the agenda of the President's captors becomes clear, Olympus Has Fallen pulls back from underlying agendas and focuses on full-throttle, admittedly cliche genre pic trappings. The pace never eases up across its two-hour span, where explosions, hand-to-hand brawls, and gunfights display the director's hit-and-miss perspective on authentic action sequences. Erratic camerawork from Conrad W. Hall and a disinterest in keeping the White House's geography perceptible -- where Banning's at in relation to where he needs to be -- don't do the film's tension any favors, but there's an element of brute force and bloodiness to the ex-agent's unplanned movement through this unconventional war zone that pick up the slack. Director Fuqua doesn't make one forget that the likes of John McTiernan and Michael Bay have more effectively telegraphed this type of material, but the noise it makes and the way it shoulders the worn-out "this man is our only hope" idea delivers more embraceable gusto than other recent spawns of the sub-genre.

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