Gerard Butler stars in the movie "Olympus Has Fallen." (Phil Caruso / FilmDistrict via AP)
‘Olympus Has Fallen’
Rated R for strong, graphic, virtually nonstop violence.
As any fan of “Independence Day” knows, there’s a perverse fascination to be found in seeing some of our most cherished national monuments pummeled and abused on the big screen.
But rarely has any such icon taken the kind of relentless beat down that the White House endures in the vengeance-fueled fantasy “Olympus Has Fallen.”
And where “Independence Day” offered an extraterrestrial enemy that was easy not to take seriously, this film serves up an antagonist guaranteed to incite viewers to a patriotic fever pitch: terrorists.
OK, these terrorists are Korean, not Middle Eastern or Central Asian, but no matter — when the mighty hammer of American justice smites those dirtbags (and you know they’ll be roundly smote in the end), it sparks the kind of visceral, clear-cut catharsis that’s all too rare in our real-world battle against a foe that’s mostly shadows and fog.
And as is usually the case in the real world, any geopolitical considerations get swept under the rug for the duration. Hey, you’re either with us or you’re against us, pal.
We open with President Ben Asher (Aaron Eckhart), his wife (Ashley Judd) and young son (Finley Jacobsen) departing Camp David in a blinding snow storm with their Secret Service detail, led by veteran Mike Banning (Gerard Butler).
Amid the almost whiteout conditions, the president’s vehicle spins out on a bridge over an icy river and threatens to go over the side. Banning and his boys get the president and his son to safety, but the first lady plunges into the river and is gone.
This entire scene serves the sole purpose of allowing Asher to push Banning off to a desk at Treasury because his presence is a too-painful reminder of Asher’s loss.
Flash forward 18 months. Banning is at his desk across from the White House when a muscled-up AC-130 variant sporting four big chain guns dive-bombs the National Mall, spitting hot death before taking a bit off the top of the Washington Monument and plowing into the White House lawn.
It’s cover for a highly coordinated lightning attack that puts a large gang of terrorists in control of the White House and puts their leader, Kang (Rick Yune), in command of the White House security bunker — with the president and several senior officials as hostages.
With both Asher and his vice president off the board, the man in charge becomes Speaker of the House Ian Trumbull (Morgan Freeman … who else would you want in this role?).
The chairman of the Joint Chiefs (Robert Forster) decides this would be a fine time to go all Buck Turgidson on the rookie CinC, a misstep for which Trumbull smacks him down so hard that the stars on his shoulders rattle. But good options appear nonexistent — until a call comes in from … Banning, who naturally rushed straight into the fray and has squirreled himself away in the White House, the only good guy left on the inside.
Luckily, he’s a former spec ops ninja, 6-feet-whatever of blunt-force trauma. He’s more than happy to be the fly in this ointment as he starts working his way through the dirtbags one by one, totally ruining Kang’s show.
Director Antoine Fuqua (“Training Day,” “Shooter”) clearly knows his way around action scenes; this thing takes off like a rocket and never lets up.
But the script by Creighton Rothenberger and Katrin Benedikt — neither of whom has a single credit beyond this film on their résumés — sports some truly lame dialogue, none more so than a tinny, jingoistic speech by Asher at the end.
The violence gets downright unseemly — and not just in terms of the vicious firefights and hand-to-hand combat. One off-putting scene has Kang brutally beating the female defense secretary (Melissa Leo) within an inch of her life. I have a tough skin for such stuff, but this goes on so long that it even made me cringe.
Still, it’s not difficult to understand, and even appreciate, the slam-bang surface appeal of such a high-speed tale.
But if you harbor even a whiff of cynicism about the direction in which the good ol’ U.S. of A. is headed, you won’t have to dig too deeply under the surface — like a quarter-inch — before all kinds of uncomfortable moral ambiguities start oozing out.
In that sense, “Olympus Has Fallen” is red meat best enjoyed with your cognitive switch firmly in the “off” position.