Film Review: Olympus Has Fallen

North Korean terrorists attack the White House and take the President hostage in a generic thriller marred by poor special effects.

Efficient if simplistic, Olympus Has Fallen shifts the Die Hard formula to the White House, where a lone agent must free the President and his staff from hijackers intent on destroying the country. Produced in part by its star Gerard Butler, the film has enough blood and explosions to tide over its core audience until the next White House disaster film—White House Down—arrives this June.

Butler plays Mike Banning, a member of the Presidential security detail who's in exile after failing to prevent a tragic accident. But he returns to the White House once President Benjamin Asher (Aaron Eckhart) is taken hostage in a basement bunker by North Korean terrorists.

Led by Kang (Rick Yune), the villains dismantle American defenses handily, destroying the Washington Monument, taking over satellite communications, forcing our armed forces to retreat from the Korean Demilitarized Zone, and implementing a scheme to assume control of our arsenal of nuclear weapons. As one Security Council official gasps, "We lost Korea and now our own nukes?"

Olympus Has Fallen could have used a few more howlers like that, but director Antoine Fuqua maintains a deadly serious tone throughout the generic plot from screenwriters Creighton Rothenberger and Katrin Benedikt. In trying to elevate potboiler material, Fuqua only emphasizes how queasy the film's morals are, and how exploitive its techniques.

Tempered a bit by rapid editing, the violence in the film is unusually harsh. On-air executions vie with knives shoved into skulls. Thugs beat poor Defense Secretary Ruth McMillan (a game Melissa Leo, trapped in an ill-fitting wig) senseless in a scene that later proves pointless. The camera doesn't linger over the scores of murdered extras, but the impact of the carnage remains.

On the other hand, scenes of large-scale mayhem have a comic-book quality. Thanks to singularly unimpressive special effects, when buildings collapse you may as well be watching a prop-master smashing old Ray Harryhausen models.

Olympus Has Fallen sports a strong supporting cast, notably Morgan Freeman in another role as a calm but stern leader, this time House Speaker and acting President Allan Trumbull. But this is Butler's vehicle, and he brings energy if little nuance to his part. Agent Banning is noble—kind to kids and women, especially his nurse wife Leah (Radha Mitchell)—but he won't take any guff either, not from terrorist hordes or lamebrained officers like General Clegg (Robert Forster).

By comparison, Die Hard's John McClane seems like a mass of complications. But where Olympus Has Fallen really falls short is in its basic plotting. Shootouts lead nowhere, secret codes end up irrelevant, logic and common sense are on vacation, and personal relationships are afterthoughts.

The only thing Olympus Has Fallen does well is violence. Not action, because the fights here are dimly lit and poorly choreographed. But the movie is like a machine for delivering death. This grim, ugly film has it all: splattered skulls, disintegrating limbs, bodies crushed by debris or blown apart by high-caliber bullets. And as many American flags as Fuqua can fit into the frame.