Antoine Fuqua’s Olympus Has Fallen is pretty much exactly that. The White House’s code name is “Olympus,” and it does indeed fall. A terrorist team effectively and efficiently takes control of the White House within the film’s first half hour, even going so far as to kill the South Korean Prime Minister and take the President of the United States (Aarron Eckhart) hostage. Night soon falls, the situation looks bleak, but don’t worry, because a Secret Service agent is on the case: Mike Banning (Gerard Butler) wasn’t killed in this raid, and he’s now America’s only hope.
The rest of the film plays out like a higher-stakes Die Hard. One man against thirty or so terrorists, with the end of the world eventually being on the line. Of course, nowadays it’s the Koreans who have to be the villains, and while there’s an initial shrouding regarding whether or not they’re from the North or the South, you’ll be able to figure it out pretty quickly. The leader of this attack is Kang Yeonsak (Rick Yune), someone who has a precise plan and is very good at executing it.
On the outside, we have Morgan Freeman playing the Speaker of the House (and acting President), and Angela Bassett as the head of the Secret Service. Freeman’s character essentially gives orders to Banning, based on the intelligence that is received from the inside. There are a lot of stealth takedowns from the point of Banning — guns would alert the bad guys to his position, I suppose — as well as some shootouts between nameless and faceless people.
The initial siege of the White House manages to overcome this. There’s a lot of bloodshed, a great deal of bullets being shot and lives being lost, and it’s actually pretty tragic. Innocent people are being killed, important monuments are being destroyed, and the shooting style often mimics what the local news might be showing if they were given a decent budget. It feels real, even though much of the actual action is improbable. It doesn’t really matter who’s getting killed, as the sheer numbers overwhelm the lack of familiarity.
However, as Olympus Has Fallen progresses, it loses that edge. There are plenty of violent and pretty gruesome kills, but they’re almost all happening to nameless Korean terrorists. Even when high-ranking members of the government are tortured or flat-out killed, it doesn’t leave much of an impact. The only thing we know about them is their name, presented to us with a blurb of text when they’re first introduced. Apart from that, they have no character, and give us no reason to care.
Is the film pro-American? Will it reaffirm the values of the country in which it was made? What do you think? Do you really believe they’d make a movie like this and not, at times, have it drip in patriotism? Of course there are these moments. You can’t make a movie like this one and not do that. You can’t show the White House getting destroyed and the President being disgraced without also providing your audience with the type of material that will attempt to get them to stand up out of their seats and put their hand on their heart.
That only really works if you’re American, however. For most of the world, it won’t come across in the same way. The White House is too recognizable to be mentally transplanted to a local landmark. You can set your film in, say, a hotel, and that could resonate with audiences all over the world. It’s not the same with the location in Olympus Has Fallen. It will definitely play differently overseas, and while this doesn’t ruin the action, it might wind up annoying more audience members than it will inspire.
It makes sense, then, to cast All-American Gerard Butler in the lead role, right? Wait, that’s not right. Gerard Butler? Really? Why? I get that we want a rugged and sufficiently believable lead actor, but Gerard Butler? The man can’t even do an American accent. It’s painful watching him try to be the American Hero in this film. He can handle the action, but whenever he has to speak or do anything resembling drama, it doesn’t work at all. Was Jeremy Renner unavailable during filming? His casting would have been a significant improvement.
To be fair, the action scenes are fine, or would be if we could see all of them. The majority of the film takes place at night, in the White House, after the power has been cut. And since most of the action scenes are hand-to-hand battles, it’s often tough to tell exactly what’s going on at any given moment. There’s some inventiveness and a couple of genuinely good moments, but most of it is routine and some of it is incomprehensible.
Olympus Has Fallen has the pieces to be a decent action film. It will do well with American audiences. It has some strong moments, but it also has some really weak ones. It’s a lesser Die Hard taking place in a strongly American setting, meaning it won’t resonate as well with non-American audiences. You can’t separate the location from the film this time around. That’s a disadvantage. Gerard Butler was miscast, too. There are points when the film is fun, and if we could see all of the action, that would help, but it’s really hard to recommend Olympus Has Fallen.