The new big-budget, bullet-riddled actioner “Olympus Has Fallen” has a premise so painfully obvious that it’s amazing nobody thought of it before, especially in the creatively bankrupt atmosphere of Hollywood. The plot is essentially “Die Hard” in the White House, with a similarly smart-ass loner (Gerard Butler) trapped in a massive building full of heavily armed terrorists who are holding one very important man hostage (Aaron Eckhart, trading up from his district attorney position in “The Dark Knight” to President of the United States here). Unfortunately, “Olympus Has Fallen” fails to capture even a glimmer of the greatness of “Die Hard,” instead coming across as a loud, crass, unpleasantly violent movie whose politics are muddier than its gauzy cinematography. (It should be noted, however, that it is markedly superior to the last actual “Die Hard” movie, the borderline unwatchable “A Good Day to Die Hard.” Still.)
“Olympus Has Fallen” begins with a pretty exciting prologue, at least. On a snowy night at Camp David, the President is getting ready to go to a Christmas fundraiser for his re-election campaign, engaging in witty, the-presidency-is-putting-a-strain-on-our-marriage banter with his beautiful wife (Ashley Judd). Secret service dude Mike Banning (Butler) clearly has an affinity for the president, and the president’s nerdy young son (Finley Jacobsen), who begs to ride in Banning’s car. While on the way to the fundraiser, something happens (it’s never explained what, exactly, so we’ll just say slippery ice), and the president’s car ends up dangling over a high bridge. Banning acts quick and saves the president, but the First Lady is trapped in the car as it plummets into a frozen lake. Sorry, prez.
Eighteen months later (thanks, helpful title card!), Banning is still racked with guilt (although honestly how guilty can you feel for saving the President’s life?) but is now working at the treasury department, across the street from the White House. His marriage to his beautiful, tragically underwritten wife (Radha Mitchell, in yet another role unbefitting her talents) is strained and he tells his stern superior (Angela Bassett, in a role that is basically a tough-talking hologram), “I gotta get back in.” Back into the Secret Service, bro? Why that would take some kind of highly organized terrorist infiltration, leaving many (if not all) of the normal Secret Service guys dead… Hey wait a minute…
During a diplomatic meeting with a Korean ambassador, the White House is overtaken, first by air (in a nifty sequence packaged complete with a giant military plane shooting down fighter jets over suburban Washington, D.C. and turning civilians into atomized smudges) and then by ground, as armed fighters, suicide bombers, and dudes with heavy artillery parked in garbage trucks pretty much mow down everybody that stands in between them and the White House. Meanwhile, the President has been taken down to his “Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines“-style bunker, as the bad guys (lead by a danger-and-charisma-free Rick Yune from “Ninja Assassin“), including a disaffected former Secret Service agent (Dylan McDermott, clearly one of the few actors who understood what a artless trash heap he was a part of), try to wrestle nuclear codes out of him. In another, less fiery part of the Capitol, a military guy (Robert Forster), the Speaker of the House (Morgan Freeman) and whoever Angela Bassett plays, all sit around in a “Dr. Strangelove“-y room, deciding what half-baked plan to enact next, while Banning runs around the deserted White House killing motherfuckers left and right.
After the initial attack on the White House, things slow down considerably, with a number of plot threads either running low on gas or fizzling out completely. One involves the bad guys looking for the President’s son, who Butler’s Banning handily rescues and spirits out of the White House in short order. You then might assume that the movie will be some kind of weird buddy movie with the President’s kid and Butler hiding from the bad guys, with an emotional bond being formed between the bad-ass soldier and the sweet child but, nope, it’s over before it’s begun. Another attempt at a rooftop infiltration by a bunch of military guys turns into something that resembles a cartoonish videogame as written by Tom Clancy, as the terrorists unleash some kind of futuristic military weapon. “How did they get that?” someone in the “Dr. Strangelove” room asks. No one answers. And it never comes up again. Oh. Glad that’s taken care of.
Butler, for his part, makes a pretty good action hero. He’s clearly in his comfort zone, in a role that’s a combination of John McClane and that handful of roles Kurt Russell assayed during his fruitful John Carpenter period (thankfully without the acid wash jeans). His character isn’t given a whole lot of dimension, unless you count his proclivity for stabbing people in the head with serrated blades as a character trait (which, honestly, in a movie this threadbare, you might). Eckhart doesn’t have much to do except scream and sweat, and the women characters (including Melissa Leo as the tough-as-nails Secretary of Defense) are more or less ghostly ciphers – they’re less performances than glorified, well-dressed set decoration.
“Olympus Has Fallen” was directed by Antoine Fuqua, a talented filmmaker who works best with modest budgets (things like his breakthrough “Training Day” and the underrated “Brooklyn’s Finest,” which had the agreeably laid back vibe of a ’70s cop movie) and flounders when given too much cash (the less said about the bizarre Bruce Willis vehicle “Tears of the Sun,” the better). While the action sequences are competent, much of the second half of the movie takes place in the wrecked White House, in diffuse lighting conditions, which makes for hazy visuals that further obscure the action sequences’ sense of spatial geography. Worse yet, is that the movie is so apolitical; there could have been a nice slant to the movie, about how both sides of the aisle could get together to kick out these Korean terrorists. Instead, it remains totally void. In a few months, we’re getting another movie with an eerily similar plot. “White House Down” premieres this summer and swaps Channing Tatum for Gerard Butler and Jamie Foxx for Aaron Eckhart. Let’s hope that it also cuts the excessive bloodshed and political timidity for something with teeth. And a heart. [C-]