The 13 minutes it takes for terrorists to decapitate the Washington Monument, rain bullets on the National Mall, blow up Pennsylvania avenue, invade the White House and take the president and his national security team hostage depict a national nightmare in fetish-level violence not often seen in cinema this side of 9/11.
The assault comes not in a climax, but early in "Olympus Has Fallen." So the rest of the film will have to labor to sustain the adrenaline rush, and to rescue its characters (and its audience) from the sense of helplessness such a ghastly attack renders. But "Olympus Has Fallen" keeps the action pumping–not slacking for a second—as the fate of the nation depends on one Achilles-sized warrior.
Eighteen month prior to the attack, a car crash kills the president's wife (Ashley Judd, in a role too insignificant to affect the potential for a Senate run, though that won't stop such speculation), prompting Secret Service Agent Mike Banning (Gerard Butler) to leave the White House guard for letting it happen under his watch. He now is depressed at his post at Treasury, bored pushing papers and coldly pushing away his wife.
But when terrorists tied to a North Korean paramilitary group subvert every aspect of security at the White House (code name: Olympus) and threaten to assassinate President Benjamin Asher (Aaron Eckhart) in his own bunker, Banning—with his insider know-how, his outsider status and his devotion to the president—is the only man who can save the day.
From the number of explosions in the trailer (11), you should know already whether or not this is your kind of film. If it's not, you will balk at the start-to-finish violence, the all-too-tidy resolution and, if you are of a particularly culturally sensitive attitude, the dash of Orientalism.
But if pyrotechnics and gun fights and Bruce Willis wannabees are your thing, then "Olympus Has Fallen" is wildly entertaining. The setup moves quickly to give you all the necessary ingredients, and once the action starts it never stops. Gerald Butler is fine as your standard issue, smart-alecky tough guy and Eckhart's President Asher is a valiant victim. Angela Bassett as the secret service director and Melissa Leo as the secretary of defense also put on brave faces in the disaster, though their courage is worthless without Banning's heroics. Morgan Freeman as Speaker of the House Ian Trumbull, who is elevated to the presidency during Asher's capture, radiates the humble righteousness that is expected of any Morgan Freeman character; but Trumbull is never so competent as to steal Banning's thunder.
While "Olympus Has Fallen" makes it easy to root for the good guys, the bad guys are disappointing straw men. That North Korean propaganda video aside, actual geopolitics plays a limited role in the film. "Olympus Has Fallen" could have worked all the same with any state hostile to America undertaking the attack—North Korea is merely the malice of the moment.
The feasibility of their demands is laughable, and that's to say nothing of the canyon-sized plausibility hole in the attack itself. Particularly discouraging is the reasons a key character says drive him to betray the president: "globalization" and "Wall Street"…seriously, that's all he gives us.
But no matter. You don't watch these kind of films because you care about an enemy. And because the enemy in "Olympus Has Fallen" is so one-dimensional, its hero is all the bigger.