Olympus Has Fallen: Antoine Fuqua’s Actioner, Starring Aaron Eckhart, Morgan Freeman, Angela Bassett

Director Antoine Fuqua may have peaked artistically in 2001 with Training Day, for which Denzel Washington had deservedly won the Best Actor Oscar. However, he can still make a mean, fast-moving action thriller, such as Olympus Has Fallen, an often unsettling, sometimes silly, but always patriotic flick.

The cast, both lead and supporting, is attractive—Aaron Eckhart, Morgan Freeman, Angela Bassett, Dylan McDermott, Ashley Judd, Melissa Leo (who takes quite a beating), Rick Yune, Radha Mitchell, Robert Forster. Fuqua is even able to get a passable performance out of the pouty Gerard Butler, his lead, an actor who showed a lot of promise but has mostly made bad pictures (especially romantic comedies).

In Fuqua’s opening sequence, an ominous presidential motorcade sets out from Camp David on a snowy December night. Things of course must go very wrong. While the president (Eckhart) and the first lady (Judd) ride in the lead car, the president’s best buddy, Secret Service agent Mike Banning (Butler), follows behind. The president’s car suddenly skids to the edge of an icy bridge, and Banning can save only the president before the car teeters over, resulting in the first lady meeting her tragic end.

A year and a half later, Banning is no happy camper. He’s been transferred off the president’s detail to a desk job at the Treasury Department. Bored out of his mind, he wants back in the game but he doesn’t see a way. In Hollywood movies, especially the war genre, desk job has always been looked at in contempt and holders of such positions are seen as soft men (This is the case in many of John Wayne’s pictures).

Though Ölympus” has been in the works for a number of years, its release this week may benefit from real-life politics, specifically threats from North Korea’s new, young leader. In this tale, Mike gets lucky, when a North Korean airplane crashes right on the National Mall (after lopping off the Washington Monument). The insurgents, disguised as tourists, pop up everywhere, riddling every American flag with bullet holes, overrunning the White House, and abducting the president. They accomplish all this in a few minutes that Fuqua stretches into a long, brutal, and, in a way, mesmerizing sequence (despite super- cheesy effects). This is, in part, an old-school gung-ho war movie.

Washington winds up looking something like the chaotic and devastated Atlanta after the big fire in “Gone With the Wind” (1939). The hospitals are full of injured and dying civilians, the Secret Service’s decimated, and Banning’s of course ready to act.

The plot is supposed to be fun in a “Die Hard” kind of way—and it definitely loads more fun than the latest chapter of that series, “A Good Day To Die Hard.” But this scenario is too horrific, this battle potentially too bloody to be fully embraced by mass audiences. It will certainly conjure up unpleasant memories for many viewers of Al-Qaeda’s 2001 attack on Washington.

Banning gets back into the White House, amazingly evading all North Korean occupiers. Since he knows every crook and cranny, he’s able to sneak into the Oval Office and connect via videophone with the new acting president, played by Freeman, who was also a president in “Deep Impact.” (At this point of his career, Freeman, arguably the best actor working in cinema today, mostly plays authorial and heoric figures, including God or the voice of God).

When Banning learns that the president’s being held in a bunker deep below the White House and that the president’s young son (Finley Jacobsen), a wannabe Secret Service man himself, has found someplace in the building to hide, this one-man battalion concocts a plan to singlehandedly rescue the president, his son, and, yes, America, which is about to be nuked with its own nukes.

His plan’s basically to kill as many North Koreans as he can, which Banning relishes—at one point, grabbing a bust of Lincoln to crush an opponent. Butler may not have much more to offer than his scowl and biceps, but he does deliver one great line to his North Korean nemesis (Yune): “Why don’t you and I play a game of fuck off—-you go first!” Apparently, this is just the attitude one needs to get one’s job back in the nation’s capital these days-—lesson learned.

Major problem of this picture is that it doesn’t deliver the goods–the thrilling action set-pieces–that are promised in the first reel.