Thursday, March 21, 2013

Review: "Olympus Has Fallen"

This seems like good timing for a slick, slightly jingoistic action/thriller with a geopolitical bent. America continues to writhe in its economic doldrums, madmen puff and pose overseas, and sometimes it feels as if members of our political parties regard each other as dire enemies rather than fellow citizens.

“Olympus Has Fallen” is a play on a familiar theme, but one executed with craftsmanship and skill. The plot is essentially a spawn of “Die Hard” -– terrorists take over a place, killing hostages and outwitting emergency responders, but unbeknownst to them a lone, determined lawman is trapped inside and sets about mucking of their plans.

The big twist here is that the building under siege is none other than the White House, the chief hostage is President Benjamin Asher (Aaron Eckhart) and the bad guys are North Korean terrorists looking to impose nuclear domination over the Far East.

Now, the movies have depicted the President’s abode being blown up a few times before, but never a plausible and frightening depiction of it being successfully stormed by hostile forces. Rookie screenwriters Creighton Rothenberger and Katrin Benedickt lay out the scenario with surgical precision, even showing how the Koreans cleverly use the Secret Service’s protective protocols against them.

Things end up with Asher and his closest advisors trapped in the underground presidential bunker, where the terrorists can take their time using brutality to extract the secret nuclear codes. The villain is Kang (Rick Yune), a smiling, hyper-intelligent type who’s eminently hiss-able.

The fly in the proverbial ointment is Mike Banning (Gerard Butler), a disgraced Secret Service agent who was kicked off the president’s detail when he failed to save the First Lady. He starts to take out the terrorists in ones and twos, leading to inevitable exchanges of taunts with Kang via radio.

Banning’s also in touch with the acting president, Speaker of the House Trumbull (Morgan Freeman), who dithers between the aggressive urgings of his top general (Robert Forster), who wants to send in a flood of soldiers, and the more cautious advice of the Secret Service chief (Angela Bassett).

Melissa Leon plays the combative secretary of defense, who’s trapped along with her commander-in-chief. Dylan McDermott is a retired Secret Service agent with a surprising new gig, and Finley Jacobsen portrays the president’s feisty son, who has an intimate knowledge of White House hiding places.

Director Antoine Fuqua (“Training Day”) keeps things moving at a brisk pace, sacrificing characterization for tension-building plot. His depiction of an attack on Washington, D.C. manages to be harrowing without being exploitative -– though a shot of the Washington Monument crumbling under its own weight needlessly recalls the Twin Towers.

The main protagonist, Banning, is actually the weakest piece of the puzzle. He should be more tormented about his previous failure, but he registers as a generic action-movie badass, spouting quips and killing messily.

(Butler’s accent doesn’t help; the Scot tries to speak American and ends up sounding Australian.)

“Olympus Has Fallen” is hardly groundbreaking cinema. But in reinventing an old tale in a smart and engaging way, it’s a thoroughly entertaining and often riveting way to spend two hours.

3.5 stars out of four

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