In a weird way, “Olympus Has Fallen” is like “Zero Dark Thirty.” Both are ego boosters for the damaged American psyche, assuring us all that however much suffering terrorists might inflict, we have the strength of character and determination to be victorious over them in the end. But there’s one enormous difference between the two films. Kathryn Bigelow’s was intelligent, gritty, nuanced and real, a complex study of the difficult work of confronting genuine threats ; Antoine Fuqua’s is dumb, slick, shallow and cartoonish, a piece of jingoistic claptrap that merely panders to patriotic emotion. And the fact that it’s effectively produced somehow makes it worse.
The plot is an absurdly simple one. The White House is taken over in a massive attack by North Korean terrorists who may or may not be in cahoots with their government, and their leader Kang (Rick Yune) holds President Asher (Aaron Eckhart), the Veep (Phil Austin) and the Secretary of Defense (Melissa Leo) hostage in the impregnable bunker beneath the ruined mansion. Kang demands of Acting President Trumbull (Morgan Freeman), the Speaker of the House, the withdrawal of American troops from the DMZ and the Seventh Fleet from the far Pacific. He also tries to extract from the Defense head, the Vice President and the President a series of codes that will initiate a special program designed to prevent accidental missile launches by incapacitating the ICBMs en route to their destinations.
But Kang hasn’t reckoned with Mike Banning (Gerard Butler), a Secret Service agent who moved to a desk job months earlier after failing to save the life of the First Lady (Ashley Judd, in what amounts to little more than a cameo) in an auto accident. He witnesses the assault on the White House and gets involved, eventually winding up the sole defender inside the mansion. A former Navy SEAL, he systematically eliminates most of the remaining terrorists with gun, knife and/or martial arts prowess—including a former colleague who’s turned traitor—pausing from his good work only to get the president’s young son Connor (Finley Jacobsen)out of harm’s way. Banning also takes out a secret US weapon that’s been installed by terrorists in the White House to blow up Black Hawk helicopters sent in on a rescue mission and saves the Secretary of Defense from public execution before taking on Kang man-to-man in the final reel. The guy’s literally a one-man army who puts Captain America to shame. And he doesn’t even have a shield!
This sort of goofiness has been a staple of action movies even since the first “Die Hard,” but here the implausibility level reaches heights that would beggar the skyscraper in the earlier movie. How, for example, did Kang get his hands on that secret Pentagon weapon to use against the helicopters? That’s never explained. Nor are we told where the plane that launches the original phase of the assault on Washington comes from—or how it’s equipped with devices that easily fend off US warplanes and missiles with some sort of magic aura. Then there’s the land assault, in which heavily-armed men are disgorged onto the White House lawn from a caravan of sanitation trucks that, for some reason, have gotten past security. And how does Kang know about that Top Secret system that defuses US missiles—though he intends to use it for another, more nefarious, purpose?
One could go on and on in this vein, but the holes in the plot are exceeded by the picture’s indulgence in the most ham-fisted appeals to righteous patriotic indignation. It’s not enough to show the White House and the Washington monument turned to rubble (the double dose an apparent effort to outdo the famous moment of destruction in “Independence Day”); Fuqua has to add a scene in which the bullet-riddled flag is torn from the mansion’s roof and tossed contemptuously onto the lawn. At such moments—and there are many—you can count on Trevor Morris’ brassy score to blare out deafeningly, and it’s even louder at the points when it’s playing on nationalistic sentiments.
Butler does his sensitive macho shtick here well enough, and handles the action proficiently. Eckhart is rather bland as the President, and Dylan McDermott chews the scenery almost as much as Yune in his secondary role. (Robert Forster isn’t far behind in that respect as an arrogant general.) Happily Leo is almost unrecognizable in a thankless part that requires her to mimic continued physical humiliation, while Judd overdoes things in her small role and Radha Mitchell gets little chance to shine as Banning’s physician wife. But Freeman wisely underplays in his usual style as Trumbull, and Angela Bassett is similarly soothing as the head of the Secret Service. The technical credits are all pro, though the effects sometimes look considerably less than today’s highest-grade examples.
In addition to “Zero Dark Thirty,” you can compare “Olympus Has Fallen” to “Air Force One,” though on a much grander scale. But times have changed since 1997, and what once seemed silly, exhilarating fun now comes across as shameless exploitation of the audience’s patriotic impulses. Perhaps that’s evidence of how far Hollywood action movies have declined from their former Olympian heights.