Olympus Has Fallen

Reviewed By Rob Gonsalves
Posted 03/25/13 11:12:52

"Let's go see two attack-on-the-White-House movies," said no one ever."
2 stars (Pretty Bad)

Every week, according to legend, Penn Jillette of Penn & Teller participates in a special Movie Night with like-minded freaks and friends. Movie Night has many rules, one of them being that if the title of a movie is spoken in the movie, everyone must applaud.

I reflected on that ritual about half an hour into Olympus Has Fallen, when a Secret Service agent (Cole Hauser) intones into his wrist microphone — you guessed it — “Olympus has fallen.” Nobody at my semi-packed screening applauded; Penn and his posse must’ve been otherwise engaged. Nobody applauded at anything else, either, even at the many cheesily patriotic moments such as the one in which the bloodied Secretary of Defense (poor Melissa Leo) defiantly recites the Pledge of Allegiance while being dragged off by terrorists.

A moronic synthesis of Die Hard and Red Dawn, Olympus Has Fallen (applause) pits One Lone Man — ex-Secret Service agent Mike Banning (Gerard Butler) — against North Korean terrorists. North Korea certainly does seem to be the accepted Big Bad of recent action cinema; last fall’s Red Dawn remake — which, like Olympus Has Fallen (applause), was distributed by FilmDistrict — famously changed its Chinese invaders to North Koreans. The movie’s politics are goofy in the manner of the hundreds of ’80s action flicks just like this one; in any event, the terrorists act independently of their country, and their ringleader (Rick Yune) is driven more by revenge than by ideology.

Director Antoine Fuqua has made eight features, of which I have seen four; is that enough evidence for me to declare him an unexciting and impersonal action director with a little style? Fuqua stages the initial assault on the White House with some bloody snap and vigor, but after that it’s a lot of footage of Gerard Butler skulking around dark hallways and neutralizing terrorists, crosscut with scenes at the Pentagon where people, including Morgan Freeman and Angela Bassett, scowl and fret. The President (Aaron Eckhart) is being held hostage in his bunker along with most of his top officials, and he must be rescued before the terrorists gain full access to the three-part code that will blow up all of our nukes in their silos. The President’s son is also hiding in the White House somewhere, and Banning must find him. Fortunately that goal is knocked out of the way relatively early, or else we’d be thinking “Who cares about a kid? Olympus has fallen!” (Applause.)

A prologue of sorts tells us why Banning is no longer a Secret Service agent: one snowy night, the President’s vehicle went halfway off a bridge, and Banning wasn’t able to save the First Lady (Ashley Judd) before the First Car plunged into the icy drink. What we take from this is not “What a sad backstory” but “I guess Ashley Judd gotta eat.” The movie is in other respects a halfway house for actors who used to have better careers, like Bassett, Radha Mitchell, Dylan McDermott, and Robert Forster. Olympus Has Fallen (applause) isn’t much of an actor’s showcase anyway, though Aaron Eckhart gets to add another Big No moment to his highlight reel. Butler does what he can, but Banning lacks the Jersey street wit of John McClane, not to mention McClane’s vulnerability. If we’re supposed to feel any apprehension on Banning’s behalf, we don’t, because he’s presented from the word go as the best and toughest Secret Service agent ever.

Every so often, competing films on the same theme go into production independently of each other and then race to see which will hit theaters first (last year brought Mirror Mirror and Snow White and the Huntsman, for instance). This is one of two White-House-under-siege films you will see (or wait for Netflix to see) this year, the other being June’s White House Down.

Will there be a character in that film who will dramatically speak the line “White House down,” prompting Penn Jillette and his cronies to redden their palms? Maybe you can go see it and let me know — I’ll probably opt for the Sandra Bullock/Melissa McCarthy comedy that weekend, having essentially seen "White House Down" already.

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