When the White House is attacked and the president held hostage by North Korean nationalists, only Mike Banning (played by Gerard Butler), a disgraced former secret service agent, stands between the terrorists and a plot that may leave the United States of America in ruins.
What we thought:
When it comes to action thrillers, you can get away with weak characterisation, lame dialogue and ridiculously over the top set pieces as long as the audience willingly suspends their sense of disbelief. The very fine line between "This movie is ridiculous!" and "This movie is ridiculous... but I'm going to go with it!" separates good action flicks from bad - or your Die Hards from your Die Hard 4.0's. Olympus Has Fallen, however, somehow tramples all over this line.
Director Antoine Fuqua may be best known for the intense drama of Training Day, but Olympus Has Fallen never so much as suggests that it is anything other than an immensely silly action romp. It may have North Koreans (aka this week's Public Enemy #1) as its villains and it may play straight into post-9/11 fears, but the film is really little more than Die Hard in the White House or, perhaps more appropriately, Air Force One on the ground. It is, in fact, a clear throwback to the action films of the 80s and 90s.
Which isn't to say that is suffers for being derivative. It mostly just means that it understands its own genre's conventions and plays up to them nicely. It's certainly far more successful at honouring the original Die Hard – which is still the defining film of its genre for the past quarter century and counting - than the two most recent Die Hard sequels combined.
It has a likeable, quippy action hero in the form of Gerard Butler who is clearly right at home in the role and some rock-solid support from Angela Basset, Melissa Leo, Aaron Eckhart and a typically (acting) presidential Morgan Freeman. It has explosive, bone-crunching action scenes and a zippy, relentless pace that ensures that its 120 minutes never drag. It's fun, it's funny and its exciting, which is really exactly what the doctor ordered for this sort of thing.
Unfortunately, all of this good will is at least partially undone by three major problems. First off, the main bad guy (Rick Yune) is a bit of a personality-free dud, which would be a fatal blow to the film if it weren't for the fact that he's helped somewhat by having a deliciously slimy Dylan McDermott as his second in command. His character's motivations may be frankly inexplicable, but McDermott is clearly having a blast here as he continues to shake off the boring, straight-laced persona with which he is too often associated.
More problematic, however, are the two remaining flaws that directly affect the viewer's – or at least this viewer's – "willing suspension of disbelief". For action films to get away with being patently absurd, it is crucial that they are pitched right tonally. If your tone is serious and "realistic", you have to ease up on the silliness and, of course, vice versa.
Olympus Has Fallen is pitched as being decidedly silly, ridiculous even, for 90% of its running time, which is great, but the other 10% of the time it goes for a level or realistic brutality that is completely at odds with the tone of the rest of the film.
Finally, and worst of all, is the unavoidable truth of Olympus Has Fallen: It is unbelievably stupid. Sure, a fair amount of stupidity is expected for this sort of film but in this case the sheer, bone-headed stupidity is so constant and so severe that it's all but impossible not to be taken right out of the film with every increasingly misjudged plot twist and progression.
You need to be immersed in a film to "go with it" but how on earth are you supposed to immerse yourself in a film when every ten minutes you're all but physically assaulted by waves of brain-frying dumbness. I can't reveal why it's dumb, but let's just say that if you think the assault on the White House is, shall we say, unlikely, wait until you see where the film goes next. Some films have plot holes, this has black holes from which, believe me, there is no escape.
Still, for all this, if you don't mind having your intelligence insulted for two hours straight and you can overlook the film's other faults, it is a mostly enjoyable thrill ride that has unquestionably worked far, far better for general audiences than for us stuffy critics.