“Olympus Has Fallen” is easily the best “Die Hard” movie of the year, and I include the year’s actual “Die Hard” movie in that statement. It offers a worthy, wise-cracking hero (Gerard Butler), a nefarious villain (Rick Yune), some rah-rah action, Aaron Eckhart as the president, Robert Forster as the Army Chief of Staff, and Morgan Freeman as Speaker of the House. You will agree these are all excellent ingredients for a thick, tasty serving of cinematic frivolity. All that prevents this from being a four-star action blockbuster are some larded subplots and a superfluous degree of buzz-killing violence.
Butler plays Mike Banning (is there a better action hero name?), a former Secret Service agent who’s working a desk job nearby when the White House is ambushed by well-organized and heavily armed North Korean terrorists. The president, vice president (Phil Austin), secretary of defense (Melissa Leo), and other key staffers are held hostage in the underground bunker, and the Secret Service detail is wiped out. That leaves only one man who can save the day: Mike Banning!
The screenplay, by first-timers Creighton Rothenberger and Katrin Benedikt, has sufficient verbal raw meat to satisfy the action fan’s cravings, as when Mike Banning tells a pesky combatant, “Why don’t you and I play a game of f*** off? You go first.” Growling in a Scottish accent that has been minimized so it sounds like an American speech impediment, and stalking around the dark corridors of the ravaged White House (80 percent of the movie takes place at night, in rooms without electricity), the butt-kicking version of Gerard Butler is a welcome sight. This, and not the interminable romantic comedies, is what he should have been doing since “300.”
Storywise, there are some issues. A prologue depicting Mike Banning’s fall from Secret Service grace is useless except to establish that Mike Banning is an action hero who’s haunted by a past tragedy — i.e., that he is like every other action hero in every other movie. Likewise, the important role that the president’s young son, Connor (Finley Jacobsen), plays in the early scenes — palling around with Mike Banning, obsessing over the minutiae of White House security — proves to be a red herring; he’s taken out of the equation soon after the trouble begins. The president’s own physical fitness (we first see him boxing) is another path that’s laid out and never followed. The news media covering the standoff are privy to more information (like what the terrorists’ demands are) than they ought to be. And so forth.
This is pure cookie-cutter, formulaic, by-the-numbers popcorn escapism — and more power to it! When a movie hits all those buttons in the right sequence, it can be every bit as worthwhile as the more “important” movies. But “Olympus Has Fallen,” directed by the often too-serious Antoine Fuqua (“Training Day,” “King Arthur”) is held back by its body count. The first attack sequence, in particular, has civilians being mowed down, crushed by falling debris, slaughtered in a chaotic attack — and Fuqua shows it all. When the bad guys start executing hostages with gunshots to the head — there are many, many gunshots to the head in this movie — Fuqua doesn’t cut away tastefully but shows them, up close and personal. We go into a movie like this wanting to be entertained by implausible scenarios of derring-do, but so much blunt ugliness hampers the fun.
B- (1 hr., 58 min.; )