Olympus Has Fallen is a weird beast of a movie. It’s overcooked, even in comparison to other “patriotic” action flicks. It can’t just stop at shots of American flags, or even shots of tattered flags. No, it has to actually show the terrorists hauling down the flag from the White House roof and hurling it to the ground below, all set against a blood-red sunset. I can only conclude the screenwriters – Creighton Rothenberger and Katrin Benedikt, with some help from director Antoine Fuqua and lead actor Gerard Butler, apparently – have never heard the term “subtext.” Also, the ending descends into action movie pablum.
Yet, weirdly, to a surprising extent, the movie works.
This is mainly thanks to the beginning, where we’re introduced to President Benjamin Asher (Aaron Eckhart), taking a breather at Camp David with his wife Margaret (Ashley Judd) and son Connor (Finley Jacobsen). As their Secret Service point man Mike Banning (Butler) rounds them up for a trip to a fundraiser, Olympus Has Fallen does a genuinely compelling job of setting up the emotional relationships: Banning’s friendship with Asher and Margaret, his big-brother-style affection for Connor, and his rapport with his fellow agents, Roma (Cole Hauser) and Forbes (Dylan McDermott). Unfortunately, an accident in a snowstorm en route to the fundraiser forces Banning to haul Asher from his limo just before it plummets to the river below, taking Margaret with it.
This is also the first taste of Fuqua’s inability to know when to quit. He gives us the full nine yards of slow-mo takes, mournful trumpet music, and an overhead shot fading to black, with Asher’s echoing cry of “No!” to top it off. Training Day, this ain’t.
A year and a half later, Banning is working for the Treasury Department, and Asher and his son are trying to carry on down the street at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. Then a group of North Korean terrorists, lead by the viscous Kang (Rick Yune), assault the White House from both the land and the air. They conquer the building and take Asher and part of his cabinet hostage. Banning manages to slip into the White House amidst the violence, making him the one hope the Secret Service Director (Angela Bassett), the Speaker of the House (Morgan Freeman), and the country have.
Fuqua is a capable deployer of violence, and he brings a real sense of kineticism and brutality to the initial assault and the other action sequences. (Though in the former case, the bright daytime color palette is weirdly dissonant with the bloodiness of the proceedings). And throughout the movie there’s a certain old-school, masculine, devil-may-care charm to the proceedings that harkens back to the action flicks of the early 90s.
Gerard Butler performs the role of action hero lead serviceably, but he’s more mechanism than character. Aaron Eckhart is more impressive as the president, especially considering the fact that he spends most of the movie tied up in an underground White House bunker with Kang, Kang’s minions, and few members of the Cabinet.
The bunker scenes are the closest Olympus Has Fallen gets to thematically compelling material. The terrorists’ aims, needless to say, involve a far greater scheme then merely capturing the president and forcing a change in American geopolitical strategy. Kang’s brutality is of an order you don’t usually see in mainstream action movies, and Fuqua doesn’t try smooth down the rough edges. There are tantalizing possibilities that Asher will be forced to choose between the lives of the American people and the lives of his Cabinet members, or even his son, while Basset and Freeman’s characters may have to make the same choice between Americans’ lives and Asher’s own.
An especially grueling sequence involves Kang beating Secretary of Defense Ruth McMillan (Melissa Leo) to acquire information. It’s an impressive instance of a movie portraying appalling male violence against a woman while at the same time doing tribute to her strength of character.
Unfortunately, that’s also the best that can be said for the film. That same old school masculine ethos also gets entangled with some more frustrating – and frankly, more morally disreputable – aspects. The movie ultimately fails to morally interrogate its themes with any self-awareness, and by the end is cruising purely on the good will and audience investment built by the opening scenes. At the question-and-answer following the screening, Fuqua, Butler and co. patted themselves on the back for creating a movie with a “message,” but the message in question boiled down to mundane pablum about vigilance and how the enemy is sometimes within, and that the people who defend our country are unsung heroes. I don’t dispute most of that per se, but that’s hand-waving in the direction of thematic substance rather than the thing itself.
What missions do or don’t actually fall under the heading of “defending the country?” Are there legitimate reasons people in the rest of the world may have for wanting to dismantle American hegemony? When do you sacrifice a friend, a compatriot, or a son for the lives of abstract millions? Are there any lines we don’t want our protectors to cross, even at the risk of leaving the country less safe? That last question is particularly apt, given a gleefully cruel scene in which Banning, without a hint of qualms, tortures and kills two of the Korean gunmen to extract information. Even a scene in which an American traitor realizes the error of his ways apes the aesthetic form of a distinctively masculine struggle to reclaim honor, without actually diving into the substance of the matter.
Olympus Has Fallen and its filmmakers have some grand ambitions, but they lack the story-telling chops or, frankly, the moral insight and maturity to meet them. They deliver a modestly fun popcorn entertainment, and that’s it.