Patriotism, brute force and realistic detail create effective but flawed thriller
Two fleeting thoughts occurred to me during Antoine Fuqua's flag-waving (literally) America-under-attack action yarn "Olympus Has Fallen."
First, forget about education, social programs and the deficit! We need to triple — no, quadruple — military and Secret Service budgets so North Korean terrorists can't take over the White House in a hail of bullets and rocket-propelled grenades as they do here!
"Olympus Has Fallen"
★ ★ ½
Starring: Gerard Butler, Aaron Eckhart, Morgan Freeman, Rick Yune, Melissa Leo, Angela Bassett
Directed by: Antoine Fuqua
Other: A Film District release. Rated R for violence, language. 100 minutes
Second, Fuqua's film makes for a better "Die Hard" movie than Bruce Willis' dismal "A Good Day to Die Hard."
Not much better, but it's more realistic, hard-hitting and brutally violent to the point that during a Tuesday night press screening, viewers cheered when Gerard Butler stabbed a North Korean villain in the brain or snapped the neck of a henchman.
(During these fatal action scenes, a woman behind me shouted words of encouragement to Butler: "Kill him! Kill him!" After he dispatched a North Korean baddie in a spectacularly violent fashion, she screeched her approval: "Thank you! Thank you! Thank you very much!")
My point being that Fuqua — who directed Denzel Washington to an Oscar in his gritty cop drama "Training Day" — does a masterful job of orchestrating his audiences' reactions with the movie's potent combination of patriotism, brute force and jingoistic speeches in times of crisis.
("We are never stronger than when we're tested!" Morgan Freeman's speaker of the House, Allan Trumbull, tells the nation.)
By itself, an assault on our White House is already a red flag waving before bullish patriots.
"Olympus" adds to that built-in emotion by staging the assault with such realistic, you-are-there details that it plays like a D.C. nightmare-come-true story more horrible than the sequestration.
For this massive assault, filmmakers constructed impressive replicas of the White House and Pennsylvania Avenue in Louisiana. Fuqua's research revealed that it takes the military 15 minutes to respond to a White House emergency. So the baddies in "Olympus" conduct the takeover in 13 minutes flat, played out in real time on the silver screen.
In "Olympus," Butler (also serving as producer) plays Mike Banning, a Secret Service agent assigned to the first family: President Asher (Aaron Eckhart), his wife (Ashley Judd) and young son Connor (Finley Jacobsen).
A terrible accident — a soap opera-ish attempt to give Banning some guilt to overcome — prompts the president to reassign the agent.
The White House assault (on a scale similar to the dawn attack on Fort Knox in "Goldfinger") takes place six months later when South Korea's prime minister visits President Asher.
North Korean soldiers disguised as tourists easily take out the cops and Secret Service agents, who apparently are trained to stand in open doorways so they make easy targets.
Banning survives and becomes the only chance to save the president, being held hostage by uber-villain Kang (Rick Yune, oozing with sociopathic cool) deep under the White House with key administrators, among them Melissa Leo's Secretary of Defense.
Somewhere in the building, young Connor hides out. Banning races to find him before Kang can capture him to use as leverage against the president.
Cheesy but effective, "Olympus Has Fallen" punches all the right buttons, starting with images that vividly dredge up the horrific memories of 9/11 in New York and Washington, D.C.
The overwritten dialogue from first-time screenwriters Creighton Rothenberger and Katrin Benedikt comments on the obvious, having characters explain things to each other they would already know. (And do we need an on-screen ID to tell us we're looking at the Pentagon?)
As the Speaker who becomes the acting president, Freeman hardly steps outside his comfort zone as a wise old sage with a heavy heart. Angela Bassett is almost wasted as Banning's concerned agency boss reduced to terse comments and furrowed brows.
As Banning, Aussie Butler, struggling to maintain his American accent, channels Mel Gibson's conscience-free killing machine from the first "Lethal Weapon" with a confident, committed performance. He also did many of his own thrilling stunts, which adds to the realism.
Still, "Olympus" succumbs to familiar action film clichés. Several North Korean gunmen fire a zillion bullets at Banning through a White House wall. They all miss.
Fuqua must have gotten them on loan from a James Bond movie.
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