This movie is so crazy it just might work. Whether you enjoy this White House-takeover film from director Antoine Fuqua (TRAINING DAY, TEARS OF THE SUN, SHOOTER) or don't is going to depend on how much the absurd appeals to you. The premise is certainly intriguing, so much so that two movies about terrorists storming the White House are coming out this year (WHITE HOUSE DOWN is scheduled for a June release). But OLYMPUS HAS FALLEN is the first out of the gate and features some action sequences that range from completely effective to moments worthy of grand fits of groaning and eye rolling.
The film opens with a solid set up. Gerard Butler plays Secret Service Agent Mike Banning, the man in charge of security for President Asher (Aaron Eckhart) and his family, which includes the first lady (Ashley Judd), who is killed in a nasty car accident. Banning blames himself for her death since his focus was on saving the president, but that's his job. Skip ahead two years, Banning now works a desk job for the Treasury Department, enjoys time with his wife (Radha Mitchell) and is still tortured by the first lady's death.
When the president is hosting a delegation from South Korea, a fully armed plane flies across the Washington, D.C., airspace aimed right at the White House, while a well-coordinated ground strike is executed that includes members of the delegation. Within less than 15 minutes, the White House is taken and the president and members of his cabinet are being help captive in an underground bunker. The ringleader of the mission is the radical North Korean terrorist Kang (Rick Yune of Ninja Assassin and The Man with the Iron Fists). The film is weirdly careful not to blame the actual North Korean leadership for the attack.
It just so happens that Banning's office is near the White House and he fights his way into the building under heavy fire, making him the only American in the building not being held captive, and the only person with a remote possibility of saving the president. He establishes contact with those calling the shots on regaining the White House, including the speaker of the house (and current commander-in-chief) Morgan Freeman and the Secret Service director (Angela Bassett). Inside the bunker, the president is quietly advised by his secretary of defense (a particularly good Melissa Leo).
The film gets a little sidetracked with a storyline involving finding the president's young son Connor (Finley Jacobsen), who is hiding from Kang's men, who want to use the boy to get the president to give up certain military codes that would lead the country vulnerable to attack. But that element of the film doesn't really go anywhere once Banning finds the kid. Things pick up again when Banning goes head to head with the terrorists and finds ways to outsmart Kang, since there's not way he could possibly outgun him. The U.S. military response (as laid out by a general played by Robert Forrester) is cut down rather quickly and brutally.
In fact, OLYMPUS HAS FALLEN is an especially violent and unflinching film when it comes to killing (in particular, headshots abound), so if that bothers you, stay far away. Fuqua does an outstanding job keeping the geography of the action clear so we always know where the good guys and bad guys are situated. I'll also admit it was kind of great to watch Butler really cut loose as an action star again. Banning is a man who feels he has something to make up for with this president, and it's clear that he's willing to sacrifice his own life to ensure the safety of Asher.
I also loved the pairing of Freeman and Bassett. In so many other films, they have become the voices of authority. But together, they're unstoppable. I was especially impressed by the screenplay's lack of a fuck-up character, on either side of this fight. I kept expecting someone to make a major mistake (Forrester comes the closest, but doesn't quite get there) and send the plot into an easy wrap-up. But that never happens. Everyone plays their roles as highly intelligent characters who have to find creative ways to outwit the other. Both sides score points in this battle of wits and weapons.
OLYMPUS HAS FALLEN counts on its audience to buy into the basic premise that the most secure building in the world could fall the way it does here. If you can do that, you'll probably have a good time watching DIE HARD IN THE WHITE HOUSE. There are a couple of nice turns I wasn't anticipating as well as a few resolutions that should offer enough surprises for audiences sick of predictable action movies of late. If you can handle the elevated and never-ending barrage of shooting and stabbing, you'll likely find yourself entertained and maybe a little guilty at how Fuqua and company know exactly what buttons to push to get you there. We are a predictable people.