“It’s Die Hard in the White House” is the high-concept pitch for Olympus Has Fallen. It’s a good pitch, but it’s only a pitch. The movie doesn’t understand what makes Die Hard compelling beyond “a hero trapped and alone has to take out bad guys and save hostages”. It’s about well-written characters and a confident tone, and Olympus Has Fallen has neither. Director Antoine Fuqua may have his movie paced like a tight action flick, but it’s a confused picture in terms of mood and plot. Furthermore, it misses the obvious aspect of giving us a hero worth rooting for and a villain worth rooting against. Olympus Has Fallen sticks us in the crossfire and no one knows how to shoot.
Secret Service Agent Mike Banning (Gerard Butler) was once the lead man on the detail of President Benjamin Asher (Aaron Eckhart), but Banning was given a desk job when he couldn’t save Asher’s wife (Ashley Judd) from a fatal car accident. Eighteen months later, a South Korean delegation has arrived in Washington to speak with the President about North Korea’s intent to breach the demilitarized zone. This arrival is a prelude to a sneak attack from North Korean forces led by the terrorist Kang (Rick Yune). The North Koreans manage to infiltrate the White House, and kill every Secret Service agent in the building before Banning manages to fight his way through the front door. The only agent left alive, Banning must rescue the President and stop Kang from starting nuclear Armageddon.
Olympus Has Fallen may have the Die Hard premise, but Fuqua has no idea what to do with the tone. His movie is far too brutal to be trashy fun. He takes advantage of his R-rating, but does so in an almost sadistic fashion as North Korean forces not only kill Secret Service agents, but shoot them in the head to make sure they’re dead. However, the movie is also too cheap to match the seriousness of the violence. The CGI looks terrible, so the austere action movie looks like a PlayStation 2 video game as CG guns riddle extras filled with CG blood.
The grim attack on Washington is well executed, but Fuqua never seems to get a sense of where to go from there. That’s the big set piece, and while there’s more action sprinkled throughout, it’s mostly a bunch of poorly edited fistfights. The “character” moments consist of Banning methodically making his way through the White House, and Kang torturing hostages so he can get the codes to the Cerberus failsafe, which will make the U.S. vulnerable to nuclear attack. When Banning and Kang finally talk to each other, it’s like the conversation between McClane and Gruber but with none of the flair.
Fuqua’s movie doesn’t mind taking inspiration (and wholesale scenes) from Die Hard, but it goes out of its way to avoid clichés only to arrive at the same conclusion, but in a more convolute manner. When the President is kidnapped, the Vice President is also taken hostage, so they’re both trapped in the White House bunker. That leaves the Speaker of the House (Morgan Freeman) in charge. Why not simply leave the VP out of the bunker and in the driver’s seat? The Cerberus threat also makes no sense because it’s still getting to the point of nuclear Armageddon. It’s just a roundabout way that makes the construction of the failsafe look idiotic just as it looks idiotic for the President and Vice President to go to the same location in the event of an emergency.
The appeal of “Die Hard in the White House” is that it seems relatively straightforward, but Olympus Has Fallen still manages to be a mess. It rarely manages the balance between fun and intensity, and too often it veers into sadistic territory both on the side of Banning when he tortures suspects, and on the side of Kang when he tortures hostages. Fuqua isn’t aiming for ambiguity to show how good and evil can operate through similar methods. He’s simply delivered a muddled action flick that charges through the front door with guns blazing and eyes closed.