Two movies, both about terrorists taking over the White House, the first in theaters now (Olympus Has Fallen) and the second, White House Down, still to come. But if you count G.I. Joe: Retaliation, it’s three, since that plot involves evildoers replacing the president with a lookalike, assault from within. You can imagine the pitch, at least for the first two: “It’s Die Hard in the White House!”
Yes, it’s a live-action version of a first-person shooter video game, but I kind of like Olympus Has Fallen, despite its chest-thumping title.
The plot is simple. A wily North Korean terrorist successfully takes over the White House, making a hostage of the President and his inner circle and killing a lot of people along the way. The greatest nation in the world with the greatest military in the world is completely helpless, hopeless, and hapless. Well, maybe there’s one guy . . .
Enter disgraced Secret Service agent Mike Banning. The movie provides an interesting back-story for Banning that seems lifted from In the Line of Fire, but it still works, also providing a plausible excuse for why our hero would not have been mowed down in the first wave of the assault on the White House. As in the Clint Eastwood movie, the theme is redemption, a serious theme that lifts the movie somewhat. Compare this theme to the one announced in the G.I. Joe subtitle: Retaliation, a theme as thin as the celluloid the movie is not printed on.
Act Two is essentially target practice. What I hate about most movies like this is the way they ask for a willing suspension of disbelief instead of earning it. The solution is often obvious, but the characters have to be blind to it in order for the producers to reach their 96-minute run-time. But here, just when you’re thinking, “Well, why don’t they just . . . ,” they do just that, usually with disastrous results. Because this is America, baby, and no amount of soldiers, sharp-shooters, missiles, and metal-plated generals can prevail against Evil. What it takes is a rugged individual, a man with skills and with something to prove.
Gerard Butler, also the movie’s producer, establishes himself nicely as a gravelly-voiced action hero-with-a-past. In fact, for the first time since I can remember, he does a completely convincing American accent, with no trace of his native Scotland eking through. Aaron Eckhart, as the President, is a good actor mostly wasted. The wonderful Melissa Leo has several strong moments and smartly snaps off some good one-liners.
Rick Yune provides the movie with its monomaniacal villain, who seems to have worked out the assault with exquisite detail. People magazine may have dubbed him the sexiest villain, but there’s a bit of vacancy behind the eyes that makes him seem less menacing than he might have been. But maybe I’m still too fixated on the suave and sadistic over-the-top villain Alan Rickman played in Die Hard. I like my villains with a taste for classical music, claret, and, oh yes, cutlery.
Morgan Freeman plays the Speaker of the House who takes over as President. Most of these movies (e.g., Air Force One) depend not so much on dialogue as on barked commands and snarled threats (“Do it! Now!”). Watch Freeman order a cup of coffee in the Situation Room and you see both why he’s a great actor and also the strong contrast between what’s real and what’s cartoon.
There isn’t a move in Olympus Has Fallen that you can’t predict from across the street, but it’s all carried off with speed, efficiency, and a dash of style. In an age of bloated, over-long, over-budgeted movies that are less block-buster than block-blubber, that’s quite an accomplishment.