Olympus Has Fallen has been compared to Die Hard, simply because both films tell the story of a man who involves himself in a case of international terrorism and becomes a hero. This is where the comparisons end, however. The cold, hard truth is that Olympus Has Fallen is an infinitely better film than Die Hard. It may not tell the most original story, but it has a superb sense of pacing, the characters fit well within genre parameters yet aren’t reduced to annoying typecasts, the plot is just plausible enough to be startling but not so plausible that it fails to be entertaining, and best of all, it’s an action thriller with real action and real thrills. Director Antoine Fuqua and editor John Refoua know when to let the suspense build, just as they know when to hit the accelerator; it’s a balancing act many action filmmakers seem incapable of.
The central character is Mike Banning (Gerard Butler), a former U.S. Army Ranger. At the start of the film, he’s a Secret Service agent assigned to Presidential Detail. He’s also close personal friends with President Benjamin Asher (Aaron Eckhart), his wife Margaret (Ashley Judd), and their ten-year-old son Conner (Finley Jacobsen). Not long after leaving Camp David, a Christmas snowstorm causes the President’s motorcade to crash, which, unfortunately, leads to Margaret’s death. Banning tried to intervene, of course, and he did successfully save the President, but really, there was little else he could do. Flash forward eighteen months. Banning has been reassigned to the Treasury Department. He longs to return to Presidential Detail, but Asher is still grieving his loss, and being around Banning is simply too painful a reminder. I think that, to an extent, Banning understands, as he is himself wracked with guilt.
Meanwhile, Asher’s scheduled meeting with the South Korean Prime Minister is cut short when North Korean terrorists manage to breach the White House, killing dozens upon dozens of security guards, Secret Service agents, and even innocent civilians along the way. Asher, his staff, and the Prime Minister are immediately squirreled away in a secret bunker. At that point, the Prime Minister’s ministerial aide, Kang Yeonsak (Rick Yune), reveals himself to be the mastermind behind the North Korean attack. This means, or course, that he has wormed his way into a secure location with the President of the United States, who can now be taken hostage. I will leave it to you to discover his evil scheme and the motivation behind it. I will only reveal one of his demands, namely that all U.S. military powers surrender their positions along the demilitarized zone separating North and South Korea.
Banning witnessed the outdoor attack and takes it upon himself to infiltrate the White House and, hopefully, save the day. He must first rescue Conner, who, in the confusion, was overlooked when his father was taken to his secure bunker. Naturally, Banning must then rescue the President. All the while, he must be prepared to fight any of Kang’s cohorts, who roam the halls of the White House with machineguns and knives. He periodically touches base with Lynne Jacobs, the head of the Secret Service (Angela Bassett), General Edward Glegg (Robert Forester), and Speaker of the House Allan Trumbull (Morgan Freeman), who, because of the situation, has been temporarily promoted to Acting President; all three are stationed at the Pentagon, frantically strategizing as they try to keep the government functional.
The film has its fair share of brutal violence; bullets fly, bombs explode, wounds spurt blood, and brains are splattered against walls. It would have been easy for Fuqua to sensationalize this for the sake of entertainment. Consider the original Die Hard, in which John McTiernan intended for just about every death scene to elicit cheap laughs and shallow cheers. Fuqua doesn’t make the same mistake. If anything, he allows the violence to be shocking and repulsive, which in turn allows audiences to feel the desperation of the situation. And although Butler delivers several humorous one-liners, which seems to be a requirement for all action heroes, his dialogue is not inundated with them. You have no idea how refreshing I find this approach. Had it been taken by Bruce Willis in 1988, had he not been at the mercy of a screenplay that turned his character into a muscle-bound comedian, Die Hard just might have been watchable.
I’ll be the first to admit that Olympus Has Fallen breaks no new ground. In fact, it includes just about every cliché movies like this allow for, such as the unnecessary inclusion of the hero’s perpetually tearful wife (Radha Mitchell), the systematic execution of hostages by the terrorist mastermind, the frantic effort to stop a countdown, and the sudden revelation of an American traitor, whose identity will not be released by me. Nevertheless, Fuqua clearly understands how to work with conventions without allowing them to seem so overused. I’ve already made note of the editing and the pacing; it helps that the screenplay by Creighton Rothenberger and Katrin Benedikt was heightened without being hokey, and that the casting was spot on. What this movie lacks in originality is made up for with quality.
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