“The most protected building on Earth has fallen.”
—Lawrence O’Donnell (himself)
Almost eerie how timely this movie is. As we watch North Korean propaganda and listen to boy potentate Kim Jong Un promise to launch nuclear destruction on us, Hollywood conveniently has an action movie where the danger from Al Qaeda is eclipsed by Kang (Rick Yune), a North Korean terrorist who commandeers the White House and holds the President (Aaron Eckhart) hostage, threatening the POTUS’s execution if his demands are not met. While it’s pretty easy to guess what those demands might be, Kang’s true objective may not be so immediately apparent.
Just as an aside, I wonder how many people would actually vote for Aaron Eckhart for President. Do you think it would be more or less than voted for Harrison Ford in Air Force One, or Morgan Freeman in Deep Impact? Bet it would be a LOT more than would have voted for Donald Pleasance in Escape From New York or Cliff Robertson in its follow-up, Escape From L.A. Limiting our consideration to the 20th and 21st centuries—sorry, Abraham Lincoln, Vampire Hunter (and let’s not forget the low-budget knockoff, Abraham Lincoln vs. Zombies)—I think the winner for action Presidents would have to be Bill Pullman in Independence Day, even over FDR: American Badass! The exclamation point, by the way, is actually part of the title. I’m also excluding Ronald Reagan, who actually made a few “action movies,” as defined in their day, because he didn’t really play a President in them, just settled for actually becoming one some decades after the demise of his acting career.
Of course, there’s no clue in director Antoine Fuqua’s Olympus Has Fallen as to what Eckhart’s “President Benjamin Asher” did before his presidency, or even which party he belongs to. But, while he has his share of tense scenes involving shootings, knifings, and Secretary of Defense beatings, it’s not really his movie. The film is really about ex Secret Service agent Mike Banning, played by Gerard Butler, desperately trying to disguise his Scottish accent, and being generally successful at it.
Mike has not been so successful guarding the First Family, and so was relieved of his duty, but now has a second chance, as he is trapped inside the White House walls when Kang and his henchmen invade and threaten the President and the First Kid. If it sounds reminiscent of the original Die Hard, there are indeed thematic similarities, such as the central idea of one man caught in an occupied building, occasionally trading threats and wisecracks with the head terrorist over a walkie during lulls in the carnage. Of course, Die Hard didn’t have Morgan Freeman, Angela Bassett, and Robert Forster—as the Speaker of the House, the head of the Secret Service, and the Chief of the Joint Chiefs, respectively—as a background chorus to cheer the hero on, and I’ve got to admit it is indeed an impressive cast, which also includes Ashley Judd as the First Lady, Dylan McDermott as another former Secret Service agent and also Mike’s friend, and Oscar-winner Melissa Leo as the scrappiest Secretary of Defense ever seen onscreen, or off, for that matter.
The first act will knock your socks off. The sheer brazenness and bloodthirstiness of the initial attack on the White House is jaw-dropping and horrifying, in the same sense as watching national landmarks (not to mention populations) vaporized in Independence Day. Such an attack on American soil, even after Pearl Harbor and 9/11, is so unthinkable that it’s not implausible that we could be taken by surprise yet a third time. Afterwards, the film becomes a little less spectacular, as the action shifts to more one-on-one confrontations as Mike sneaks around the corpse-littered White House hallways and offices trying to rescue the President, encountering sporadic North Korean terrorists.
If you’ve managed to forget the horror of Sandy Hook enough to once again find slaughter entertaining, director Fuqua (Training Day, King Arthur and Brooklyn’s Finest) delivers up one of the tightest and most spectacular action movies in years, all for a comparatively economical $70 million. As silly as it all ultimately is, we can only hope that Hollywood screenwriters continue to be craftier than real-life terrorists.