Antoine Fuqua has delivered many fine films that deal with the harsh, gritty, and dangerous aspects of the human condition. OLYMPUS HAS FALLEN is not one of them. This story is one of a terrorist attack on the seat of government, but the only real danger presented is killing the audience’s will to live by force feeding it a thin script so laden with clichés that it becomes a choking hazard.
Alas, there is no Heimlich Maneuver to remedy this situation. It is a standard-issue plot giving us Mike Banning (Gerard Butler), a crack Secret Service agent haunted by a split-second decision that saved the life of the President (Aaron Eckhart) he was assigned to protect, but cost the life of the First Lady (Ashley Judd). Unfortunately, President Asher was fond of his wife, and removed Mike from the White House detail. Eighteen months later Mike is working a desk job at the Treasury Building, fretting about how doughty little Conner (Finley Jacobson), the First Son, is holding up, and fighting his demons. On the portentous date of the 5th of July, after missing a barbeque to which he promised to take his wife (Radha Mitchell), he is checking in with his boss (Angela Bassett) so that their conversation can provide the tedious exposition that further explains Mike’s fragile state of mind. Aside from his emotional baggage, he’s also a little worried about that South Korean delegation visiting the White House. He has no solid evidence that the Prime Minister and staff will be trouble, but Mike is just that good. He knows something will go wrong, and, sure enough, it does. Of course.
In an intricate and finely timed action, a rogue element within the South Korean delegation has taken President Asher hostage, and made a shambles of the White House. That, further of course, doesn’t stop Mike from springing to the White House and penetrating the building because a crack ex-Special Forces agent with a guilt complex cannot be stopped, even in the face of overwhelming odds, automatic weapons wielded by an elite tactical force or the RPGs they bring up as reinforcements.
It’s all very contrived, but that’s not the problem. Neither are the special effects that are suitably bombastic as they destroy the White House and its environs. Neither is the perhaps deliberate metaphor of the slicing of the Washington Monument as a metaphor for lost power, like the discarded holiday bunting over which the South Korean motorcade rides. Astonishingly in a film this overwrought, they‘re not overdone. Yet once the action begins, it just plows along without pacing and without anything as refined or sophisticated as suspense. It is one bullet to the head, one knife to the throat, one snapped neck, one spray of shots turning abdomens into fountains of blood, after another and all in loving detail that verges on, and then stumbled right through into, slasher porn. In between, and there are not many in-betweens, there are ridiculous plot holes and just plain stupidity, as when part of that elite squad of terrorists, the ones who toppled the White House defenses in 13 minutes, declares the Lincoln Bedroom secure without first checking under the bed.
Butler and Eckhart have the decency and talent to remain committed in their performances, and Melissa Leo is delightful as a feisty Secretary of Defense who is still a force to be reckoned with when tied up and beaten. Rick Yune is suitably cold-blooded as the mastermind with his own agenda that neatly prevents the film from becoming politically crass or racially insensitive. But this is how hackneyed the project is; Morgan Freeman, originally playing the Speaker of the House, becomes the Chief Executive by default, because Morgan Freeman is always either the President or God and it’s just a matter of time before someone comes up with a script where his is both. Dylan McDermott is the bad guy pretending to be the good guy. Again. The script, to make sure we understand just how evil he is, has him not just betraying his country, but also lighting up a cigarette indoors, not once, but twice. And Mitchell is, as she has so often become, the obligatory but ancillary blonde love interest whose job it is to frown when Mike is sad, and worry when Mike doesn’t check in while all Hell is breaking loose.
The best that can be said for OLYMPUS IS FALLEN is that it doesn’t attempt to be more than an action thriller grounded in a patriotic fervor surpassed only by its gleeful willingness to engage in wholesale, gratuitous slaughter. What might have been a sleek trifle of escapist cinema is, instead, a veritable abattoir, with Fuqua insistently focusing on the mechanics and the sounds of ending a human life while also trivializing it.