Olympus Has Fallen: A retro-thriller with guilty pleasures

If you’ve ever wondered if they’ll make another Die Hard or Lethal Weapon movie like they did in the eighties, you should definitely go check out Olympus Has Fallen, an entertaining retro-thriller about well, you know: A blue-collar law-enforcement guy who gets overmatched by a condescending, foreign evil genius, and emerges bloodied but smirking.

Gerard Butler takes a welcome break from his increasingly painful romantic-comedy roles to play the terse presidential bodyguard Mike Banning. The film starts off with a 10-minute opening prologue that establishes him as trusted pal and sparring partner of the U.S. President (Aaron Eckhart), studly protector of the first lady (Ashley Judd), and idol of their son, Connor (Finley Jacobsen). All that falls apart when a disastrous accident leads to tragedy and turns Mike into a pariah, working a desk job in the Treasury Department.

Then, one day he looks out his window to see something unusual going down on the White House lawn. A low-flying cargo plane comes winging in over Virginia, knocking out a couple of Air Force fighter jets, strafing civilians and monuments alike as it heads toward the White House.

Not only is it a national calamity, but a chance for Mike’s redemption. Mike, who knows the White House intimately, sneaks into the building and sets up radio contact, first with the officials on the outside, and later with the bad guys. Then he begins picking off the members of roaming squads of commandos while formulating a plan to stymie the ringleader, Kang (Rick Yune), the rogue terrorist who has masterminded the attack.

Most of what follows is a cat-and-mouse game around the dark hallways, ducts and walls of the White House, and given the premise’s essential absurdity, it’s almost embarrassingly entertaining. Director Antoine Fuqua (Training Day) has an infectious enthusiasm for the genre’s guilty pleasures, the reductive absurdities, the salty dialogue and the patriotic bushwa. But mostly he’s good at the logistics of working out how one swaggering, underestimated American can flip the bird to his bureaucratic superiors and defeat an army of foreign fanatics without seeming too cartoonish or impossible.

Korean-American actor and former model Yune (who played a similar role in Die Another Day, the last Pierce Brosnan James Bond film) makes a colourful villain – handsome and insufferably assured, and also an unchivalrous sadist who kicks around the Secretary of Defense (Melissa Leo in a pageboy wig) as though she’s a hacky sack.

Watching all this on a video feed is a circle of overqualified actors playing helpless government officials, with Morgan Freeman as Turnbull, Speaker of the House and now acting president, Angela Bassett as the Secret Service director and Robert Forster as the pit-bull general in charge of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Mostly, they’re required to stare in horror at monitors and yell variations of the f-word at each other, but despite the familiar Austin Powers setup, they provide a welcome shot of gusto to the generic proceedings.

Occasionally comic, Olympus Has Fallen is not entirely guilt-free. The action is brutal – the corridors of power pile up with corpses – and its use of CGI images that echo 9/11 carnage borders on exploitation. Yet the paranoia is also timely. The movie is released the same week that a new North Korean propaganda video shows an imaginary missile attack on Washington (ripped off from an American video game), including the destruction of the White House.

After the brief, self-imposed Hollywood-studio moratorium on disaster movies post-9/11, the wheel seems to have finally turned; transforming catastrophes into snappy wish-fulfillment fantasies is okay again. Still too soon? On the contrary, Olympus Has Fallen seems to have arrived right on time.

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