In a week when North Korea posted a homemade video showing the U.S. Capitol building being destroyed by a missile, what more logical response could Hollywood offer than a macho thriller about a Secret Service agent who takes on North Korean terrorists who attack the White House? The first of two similarly themed action dramas set for this year ("White House Down" arrives in June), "Olympus Has Fallen" will put to the test the question of whether American audiences are ready, 12 years after 9-11, to watch, strictly as disposable popcorn entertainment, a film in which the United States and some of its most prominent landmarks are devastated by foreign terrorists.
The answer almost undoubtedly will be yes, as the tough-guy former agent played by Gerard Butler gets to kick a whole lot of bad-guy butt while trying to rescue the president. Although this is the sort of film in which the fate of the world hinges, when all is said and done, on the outcome of a one-on-one martial arts contest, director Antoine Fuqua's notably bloody child of Die Hard still generates a fair amount of tension and produces the kind of nationalistic outrage that rock-ribbed Americans will feel in their guts. Foreign revenue should be hefty as well, especially in countries where many viewers will get a thrill watching Washington get the sort of treatment usually reserved for places like Baghdad and Kabul.
Either due to incredible clairvoyance on the parts of first-time screenwriters Creighton Rothenberger and Katrin Benedikt or just through one of those twists of fate, the film arrives just as North Korea has made anti-U.S. saber-rattling an almost daily exercise. So it seems uncannily timely that the brilliant bad guy here is a (supposedly) rogue North Korean who leads a bunch of skilled commandos on a raid of the White House that nets them the president and several key members of his staff as hostages. No doubt bootleg copies of the film will make their way to Kim Jong Un, who might be simultaneously offended and delighted at the opportunity to further rouse his subjects by showing them how much the enemy hates them.
At its core, however, "Olympus" is like an '80s or '90s genre item in which Clint Eastwood, Bruce Willis or Mel Gibson outwitted and outmuscled shrewd, more formidably armed opponents. Like Eastwood in "In the Line of Fire," Butler (who also produced) plays a disgraced presidential agent sidelined and haunted by a fluky failure (detailed in a 10-minute prologue) who suddenly and inadvertently finds himself back in the thick of a crisis.
If seemingly far-fetched, the attack by the North Korean paramilitary team is nonetheless ingenious and pulled off with somewhat disturbing ease, given that the White House is described as the best-fortified location on Earth. It's also quite violently staged. While President Asher (Aaron Eckhart) receives the South Korean premier and his entourage, a C-130 comes roaring in very low over Virginia and D.C. Knocking out two Air Force fighter jets, the terrorist-piloted plane heads down the mall and over toward the White House, strafing civilians while a second wave of gunmen launch a ground attack on the presidential mansion.
Inside, the premier's alleged head of security shows his true colors as the plot's mastermind. Kang (Rick Yune) quickly displays the diabolical genius worthy of any Bond villain (which Yune once played, as another North Korean in "Die Another Day"). He rounds up the president, Secretary of Defense (Melissa Leo, in an enjoyably fierce performance) and a bunch of other top officials and takes them down to the White House's massively secured emergency underground bunker, where he tortures and kills some of his hostages and dictates terms, the keys being the immediate withdrawal of U.S. troops from near the Korean demilitarized zone and the removal of the Navy's 7th Fleet from the area.
Enter Mike Banning (Butler), who knows the White House inside and out due to his years serving not only the president but entertaining his young son Connor (Finley Jacobsen), who's somewhere in the building and whom Kang wants as the ultimate bargaining chip. The bulk of the film thus becomes an elaborate cat-and-mouse game between Banning, who, against great odds, taunts Kang and gradually reduces his minions' numbers in several ambushes and one-on-one struggles, and the North Korean megalomaniac, who begins extracting the secret codes that will allow him to control the American nuclear arsenal.
Meanwhile, stuck with sedentary roles as officials sweating it out at the Pentagon heavily linked by video, phones and computers are, among many others, Speaker of the House (and acting President) Trumbull (Morgan Freeman); Secret Service director Jacobs (Angela Bassett); and Gen. Clegg (Robert Forster), the gung-ho head of the Joint Chiefs.
The ordeal is an all-night affair, and unfortunately much of the White House action plays out in a murky, muddy darkness that has a very washed-out look; cinematographer Conrad W. Hall could have taken a tip or two from the incredible nocturnal, low-light-level work his father Conrad L. Hall did two decades ago in "Jennifer Eight." Quite a bit of the action is obscured as a result.
To his credit, though, Fuqua sustains the suspense until near the end of two hours; only in the final confrontation between Banning and Kang does the face-off seem over-extended and borderline risible. Willing to go for an R rating when a more inclusive one might have increased box office, the filmmakers deliver some pretty tough and brutal scenes, not the least of which has Kang mercilessly kicking and beating Leo's defiant Secretary of Defense.
After a string of increasingly lame and embarrassing projects, Butler took charge on this one as a producer here in a role carefully crafted in a time-honored action-hero mold. He comes off pretty well, as a sort of junior-league Mel Gibson with a bit less of the fiery-eyed craziness and wacky humor but plenty of grit and no shortage of appeal. In one-dimensional generic roles, most of the other performers deliver as expected, though Yune's exceptional looks and air of piercing intelligence pretty much maxes out what anyone could do with this sort of laser-focused villain figure.
The extensive CGI work is variable — pretty good where it counts most but sketchy around the edges. Trevor Morris wallpapers the action with a constantly churning score.
"Olympus Has Fallen," a FilmDistrict release, is rated R for strong violence and language throughout. 120 minutes.
Motion Picture Association of America rating definition for R: Restricted. Under 17 requires accompanying parent or adult guardian.