Rating: R Running Time: 120 minutes
Stars: Gerard Butler, Aaron Eckhart, Morgan Freeman Director: Antoine Fuqua
After 9/11 official Washington convened a panel of Hollywood writers to dream up possible scenarios of how terrorists might strike the U.S. again. It's not hard to imagine that the new action thriller Olympus Has Fallen (not to mention White House Down, a film with essentially the identical story opening in June) grew out of those historic pitch meetings.
Mike Banning (Gerard Butler, stifling his Scottish accent) is an ace Secret Service agent who was once the personal guard of President Benjamin Asher (Aaron Eckhart). But a tragic accident causes a split between the two men, and Banning finds himself with a desk job at the Treasury Department, his window offering a tantalizingly cruel view of the White House.
In fact, as Banning sits at that window one day he witnesses a bold terrorist attack on the Executive Mansion. During the firefight that virtually wipes out the defending feds, he slips into the residence to begin a one-man guerrilla assault to reach the bunker where the president is being held by the lead bad guy (Rick Yune, who was also Pierce Brosnan's final 007 nemesis in Die Another Day). Crawling behind the White House walls, popping out only long enough to snap some villainous necks, Banning stays in contact with the acting president (Morgan Freeman) by way of a secure cellphone.
Yes, it all sounds like Die Hard: With a Rose Garden, and there is an unmistakable formulaic quality to Olympus Has Fallen. But director Antoine Fuqua keeps hitting us with disturbing what-if images that have us alternately leaning forward and recoiling in repulsion.
The initial airplane assault awakens a visceral anxiety that you may have felt was long since erased from your psyche. The crumbling Washington Monument bears a distressing resemblance to a collapsing office tower. And the sight of hooded hostages being marched outside the White House yanks us back to the start of America's modern age of terrorism, at the U.S. Embassy in Iran.
None of that is accidental. Fuqua is the skilled director of films like Training Day and Shooter, and he knows exactly what he's doing. The legitimate question is this: Is it OK to enlist such nakedly painful national memories in the service of what is, in the end, a top-tier but by-the-numbers action film? I'm guessing the answer is no.