By Vincent Abbatecola
It seems like the White House can hardly catch a break when featured in big-budget Hollywood films. It was blown up by aliens in Independence Day, hit by a mega tsunami in 2012, and will soon be invaded in this summer’s White House Down. It’s a hard life for 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, as far as movies are concerned.
Now, it has succumbed to the hands of ruthless terrorists. In director Antoine Fuqua’s action thriller, Olympus Has Fallen, he puts D.C. in the middle of unforeseen chaos as the city comes under attack. Despite the committed performances from the cast, the film never fully rises above the usual solo-action-hero-taking-down-an-army-of-enemies story, and falls into a few genre conventions.
One night, President Benjamin Asher (Aaron Eckhart) and the First Lady get into a car accident while on their way to a fundraiser. Secret Service agent Mike Banning (Gerard Butler) is able to save the President, but not his wife. Afterwards, Banning is working at a desk job in the Treasury Department, but misses his old job. After Korean terrorists, led by Kang Yeonsak (Rick Yune), take over the White House and kill the Secret Service, it is up to Banning to save the President and other officials. Having sneaked his way into the White House, Banning will fight his way through terrorists to reach the hostages before Yeonsak’s catastrophic goals are achieved.
When he’s not starring in below-average romantic comedies, Gerard Butler has enough action appeal to carry a thriller. The way he uses his strength and action-hero moves recalls that of the tough-guy heroes from the ’80s and early ’90s, particularly Bruce Willis, as Butler dominates his way through the overrun White House, disposing of any terrorist that thinks he can take Banning down. This is one of Butler’s stronger performances because, as his breakout role in 300 proved, he’s very much at home engaging in various action sequences.
Besides Butler as the lead, the film has a better-than-usual cast for a standard action film. Morgan Freeman, as he’s proven time and time again, can make any movie better with his involvement. His role as the Speaker of the House turned Acting President is the best performance of the movie. As always, he has such a commanding presence whenever he’s on screen. Although the film’s other high-class cast members, including Eckhart, Angela Bassett and Melissa Leo, have rather underwritten roles (considering their talent), they make the most of their screen time as the President, head of Secret Service, and Secretary of Defense, respectively.
The extended sequence on the attack on D.C. is harrowing by typical Hollywood action-movie standards. We see not only see the White House, Washington Monument and other buildings get destroyed, but also the frightening devastation of casualties as all the people are running from the falling debris and bullets of an AC-130 gunship. Although Fuqua and cinematographer Conrad W. Hall can be commended to some degree for choosing to shoot the scene in such a way that the audiences can get a sense of the full scale of the attack, it’s ultimately too over-the-top. Even if it was shorter, it still would have given the viewer enough of an understanding of the attack’s impact.
The screenplay by Creighton Rothenberger and Katrin Benedikt follows the formula of other action movies that have come before it. There is the hero who suffers from immense guilt over a tragic event in the line of duty, gets transferred to a desk job, and then must step back into Secret Service mode as America’s only hope to save the day. And, there’s the plot point of the terrorists demanding nuclear codes, a commonality in many action films. The story doesn’t do a lot that’s new for the action-thriller genre, never really going above that aforementioned formula. At a near two-hour running time, there could have been more time dedicated to some character development, seeing as most of the movie is just Gerard Butler fighting and shooting his way through the White House. Not that it’s a bad thing to watch Butler exercise his ability as an action-star, but it gets repetitive after a while as the audience watches this for most of the film.
Antoine Fuqua’s direction is one of the few aspects that have the viewer forgive the clichés. He manages to get the best performances possible out of his more-than-able cast, even if some of them aren’t given much to work with. He keeps a tense tone throughout the movie in order to maintain the pressure of the situation, never needing to throw in cheesy action hero one-liners for Butler to say as misplaced comic relief. With that, Fuqua is capable of handling action scenes, but with a less clichéd script, he can be even better.
So, next time the White House gets attacked, can the hero have a good story to back him up?
Final grade: C+