A North Korean terrorist may be responsible for taking the president hostage, but it’s Bulgarian-made CGI that does the most damage in Antoine Fuqua’s intense, ugly, White-House-under-siege actioner Olympus Has Fallen. Cut past the pic’s superficial patriotism, and the message is ironically clear: Never outsource your visual effects when a domestic shop will do. Courageously representing the human element in this mostly digital assault on American soil, Gerard Butler holds his own as a one-man-army. Millennium was wise to push this grim act-of-war movie out three months ahead of Columbia’s like-minded White House Down.
In June, auds will see how Roland Emmerich, whose Independence Day gleefully made things go boom at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave., handles the task today. For the moment, the post-9/11 memory of real attacks on American targets still hits a bit too close to home. And though Hollywood’s jaunty disaster-movie days may have passed, this lower-budget entry comes with the satisfaction of evening the score before end credits roll.
Olympus Has Fallen helmer Fuqua, who’s known for bringing an unflinching toughness to inner cities (Training Day) and ancient history (King Arthur), sticks to the Die Hard model here, minus most of the tossed-off one-liners. In ex-Special Forces pro Mike Banning, Butler presents a gritty but humorless hero who cusses, bleeds and occasionally pauses to remove shards of glass from his wounds.
To raise the personal stakes, Creighton Rothenberger’s script opens with a prologue in which Banning saves the life of President Benjamin Asher (Aaron Eckhart, who looks the part of a Wall St.-friendly commander in chief), but fails to protect the First Lady (Ashley Judd) — a tragedy that leaves the redemption-seeking secret service agent reassigned to desk duty.
Banning’s chance to square the books with Asher arrives when heavily armed guerillas swarm the White House, led by the undercover Kang (Die Another Day’s Rick Yune). While a massive CG warplane flies low over D.C., gunning down pedestrians and blasting the top off the Washington Monument, turncoat Forbes (Dylan McDermott) helps Kang and his men take the president and his top staffers (including Melissa Leo’s unyielding Secretary of Defense) captive in the White House’s underground safe room.
Hokey glimpses of tourists attempting to outrun blocks of falling granite make the lo-fi effects of an earlier era look realistic by comparison. As pedestrians run for cover or die in the crossfire, Banning makes his way into the fray, searching for the president’s missing son (Finley Jacobson) before worrying about the kidnapped world leaders.
With Asher incapacitated and his veep brutally executed before the eyes of the military’s top brass, the shot-calling role falls to the Speaker of the House, played by Morgan Freeman, an actor with experience at holding the reins of power, having occupied the Oval Office in Deep Impact. Freeman demonstrates due gravitas, steeling his nerves with a strong cup of coffee while the small army of character actors around him hang their heads in desperation.
Fuqua’s widescreen approach — which offers ample room for all that vidgame-quality CG — relishes such cornball iconography, featuring shots of the American flag pierced with bullets, or tumbling slowly to the ground against a flame-red sunset, while Trevor Morris’ drum-corps score keeps things sounding duly martial. Banning earns well-deserved cheers for using a heavy bust of Lincoln’s head to bust in a baddie’s noggin.
Though not as exciting as the White House-storming seventh season of 24, the high-concept project alternates between brawny action movie and crudely considered “what if” scenario. Despite the pic’s one-on-many focus, Fuqua approaches it as a full-blown war movie, incorporating the military’s latest toys into large-scale shootouts between squads of anonymous opponents.
Sadly, those crude Bulgarian-rendered effects aren’t much more convincing than the recent White-House-in-the-crosshairs propaganda videos pouring out of North Korea. Butler brings things back to a more practical level, as his butt-kicking hero shoots, stabs and punches his way through to the commander-in-distress, only to face off against a foreign-rigged computer program in the final scene. Figures.
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