If the premise of Olympus Has Fallen strikes you as a little, well… implausible, you’re not alone. Can you buy into the concept of terrorists taking over the White House and holding the U.S. President hostage? Even in the time before 9/11 it seemed like a ridiculously unbelievable narrative, but therein lies one of the biggest surprises of Antoine Fuqua’s (Training Day, Shooter) new high-action thriller: He makes such a siege seem like a very real – and very dangerous – possibility.
For his new film, the Training Day director offers up a bloody, explosive adventure that casts Gerard Butler (300, Machine Gun Preacher) as former Secret Service agent Mike Banning, who’s caught inside the White House after it’s seized by a highly trained, well-armed group of North Korean terrorists. Trapped behind enemy lines within the most famous building in the country, Banning must find a way to free the President (Aaron Eckhart) and oust the bad guys from 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.
The synopsis harkens back to action movies of old, with a reluctant, tough-as-nails hero forced into battle with an enemy that has him outnumbered and outgunned, with only his wits and his will to live propelling him forward. Imagine Die Hard playing out in the White House, and you’re on the right track.
While Olympus Has Fallen never quite matches the lightning-in-a-bottle magic of that 1988 classic, Fuqua creates quite a bit of his own magic in setting up the scenario that pits Butler’s character against the sinister terrorist Kang (Rick Yune) and his soldiers. The film’s screenwriters and director clearly put some research into their siege scenario, and they do a nice job of anticipating the audience’s doubts about each stage of the invasion, making the entire ordeal feel more like a ruthlessly efficient military maneuver than an outrageous evil scheme. The entire ordeal unfolds in less than 15 minutes, and serves to set up both Banning’s predicament and the gritty, realistic tone Fuqua clearly intends for the film.
From the early moments of the siege until the final villain is dispatched, Olympus Has Fallen is a surprisingly brutal, graphic film, packed with more bullets to the head and knives to the vital organs than one might expect going into it. This isn’t a flaw in the marketing, but rather a departure from what we’ve come to expect from action films with high-profile stars these days, which generally keep the worst injuries implied and the action fairly bloodless. Despite its celebrated cast – which includes two Oscar winners and a long list of regulars on the awards circuit – Olympus Has Fallen is a true hard-“R” action movie that dares you not to flinch when its star snaps a bad guy’s neck or paints a wall with pieces of his brain. The level of violence is a shock at first, but only adds to the grim, high-stakes vibe of the film.
As Banning, Butler finds a nice balance with his character that keeps the former Secret Service agent from becoming a superhuman killing machine, and manages to hover within that area of believable skill that keeps him one step – or one shot, punch, or stab, in this case – ahead of his opponents. He keeps his mind on the task at hand and spends much of the movie on his own, progressing room-to-room through the White House while coordinating with the National Security Team (which includes characters played by Morgan Freeman and Angela Bassett, whose performances are just as good as you’ve come to expect from them). It’s an interesting dynamic, with Butler acting against a voice on a phone when he’s not fighting bad guys, but he pulls it off well.
Meanwhile, the cast of characters sequestered in the Presidential bunker also provide some intense moments that serve as a nice counterpoint to Butler’s solo activities, with Yune, Eckhart, and Melissa Leo (as the Secretary of Defense) playing off each other in a compelling psychological – and frequently physical – power struggle. Although Yune and Eckhart both deliver good performances, it’s Leo who really stands out as the toughest character in the room, in a role that comes out of nowhere to capture your attention. Her performance serves as a great lesson in how to make a character memorable no matter how much – or how little – screen time you’re given.
Much like the majority of high-concept action films though, Olympus Has Fallen has a fair share of flaws in its narrative and some of the leaps in logic it attempts, as well as in some of the supporting characters. Despite how plausible Fuqua and the writers have made the White House siege, a secondary plot involving Kang’s pursuit of nuclear-missile codes feels cobbled together and, well… significantly less plausible than a group of terrorists taking over the White House (which is saying a lot). The character arc for another Secret Service agent played by Dylan McDermott also feels like a bit of a stretch, with his shifting loyalty over the course of the film never being given the explanation it deserves.
Although Yune has proven himself as a capable lead villain in movies like Die Another Day, his part in Olympus Has Fallen never really ascends to the level where Hollywood’s most memorable bad guys reside. He’s menacing, but never terrifying, and we’re given little to latch onto with his character.
Still, action movie fans will find a lot to like in Olympus Has Fallen – both for the movie it is, and the type of movie it clearly draws inspiration from. At a time when audiences seem to be saddled with the choice of sub-par acting and hard-”R” action, or brilliant acting and tame action, Olympus Has Fallen pairs a phenomenally talented cast with a director who isn’t afraid to make the action in his films just as intense as the drama.