“Olympus Has Fallen,” starring Gerard Butler and directed by Antoine Fuqua, is the first of two movies this year to dramatize a Big American Fear: a successful attack on the White House. Playing on the over-a-decade-long memories of 9/11, the movie goes a step further, imagining a takeover of the Presidential home and the taking hostage of the man himself. The filmmakers do a credible, if utterly derivative and predictable, job of rendering this nightmare vision, using the tools of Hollywood’s dream factory to good effect.
Butler plays Secret Service agent Mike Banning, who (like Clint Eastwood in “In the Line of Fire”) has lost his preferred posting with POTUS. Having saved the life of the President (Aaron Eckhart) while watching the First Lady (Ashley Judd) lose hers, he has been relegated to a post in the Treasury building, across the street from the White House. From his window, he watches as the place is stormed by a bunch of Korean terrorists, following an air attack in which the Washington Monument gets smashed. Disguised as tourists, the invaders overwhelm the Secret Service agents with numbers and sheer fire power.
Meanwhile, there’s also an inside job taking place. A South Korean delegation is visiting as renewed hostility from the North is stirring the pot. (The movie’s producers enjoy the remarkable good fortune, if that’s the right phrase, of having their story appear literally “ripped from the headlines” of today’s paper.) The leader of the rogue terrorist group, one Kang (played with smooth malevolence by Rick Yune), has insinuated himself into the South Korean group. (Don’t ask how: we’re in fantasy land, remember.) So he gets spirited into the White House bunker with all the other big shots, including the VP, the Secretary of Defense (Melissa Leo), and the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
There, aided by a turncoat Secret Service guy (Dylan McDermott), he tortures and kills people, making sure that the head of the Secret Service (Angela Bassett) and the Speaker of the House (Morgan Freeman) know what he has and what he wants. Banning sneaks into the residence and, operating as a one-man gang (think Bruce Willis in the “Die Hard” series) while trading insults with Kang, attempts to find and rescue the First Son, save the Prez and, along the way, the Free World.
All this takes about two hours running (and sneaking and shooting and strangling and torturing) time. As usual in movies of this ilk, less would have been more, as the literal overkill wears on the viewer. The screenplay by Creighton Rothenberger and Katrin Benedikt is rife with clichés, and Trevor Morris’s original score out-bombasts even the Master, John Williams. The movie is rated “R” for lots of violence and the dropping of numerous F-bombs: I’m guessing that a video game is in the offing, somewhere. Unless you’re a true fan of the genre, I’d advise staying outdoors and enjoying the true suspense of when Spring returns to the tundra.