Your ability to enjoy Olympus Has Fallen stands in direct relation to the amount of scenario-based poppycock you can tolerate. On a nuts-and-bolts level, the film works just fine. A bit derivative, perhaps, but one can’t deny the innate appeal of watching Gerard Butler fillet a man with a butterfly knife. (He’s awfully good at it.) Director Antoine Fuqua invests his mayhem with appreciable amounts of grim style. He helped win Denzel Washington an Oscar, after all, and as long as he sticks to the point-and-click basics of action-movie thrillers, Olympus Has Fallen stands on solid ground.
On the other hand, when the whys and wherefores start to crop up, you’re on your own. They start early on, as North Korean terrorists launch a surprise attack on the White House and succeed in taking it over. Led by giant Slab o’ Man Mr. Kang (Rick Yune), they soon have the President (Aaron Eckhart) and his staff locked down in the nuclear bunker, and immediately begin issuing wild demands. For the most part, we give in to them… or we would were it not for lone Secret Service Agent Mike Banning (Butler) who alone has breached their phalanx of hastily piled-together garbage trucks out front, and who might succeed where the amassed might of the U.S. military has failed.
Smells a little Die Hard-y, right? Olympus Has Fallen follows that playbook a tad too closely for comfort, as similar beats and plot twists arrive with distressing punctuality. From the supposed escapee who actually belongs to the terrorists to the ill-conceived assault from stuffy establishment types who clearly don’t know who they’re dealing with, the whiff of McClaneism follows this film around like a bad rash.
On top of that, in order to make the narrative work, you need to accept that:
All of these questions float delicately in our minds as the one guy who can do something (Butler), cheerfully butchers his way through the sinister yellow men who hate our freedom on his way to the bunker. (I say that, and yet the film's political subtext is frankly irrelevant; nobody’s here for a treatise on international relations and those who are need to loosen the hell up.) Fuqua defuses more than his share of the logic holes with his tight camerawork and willingness to get to the bloody point. The face-palm equations remain in the back of the mind, but it’s hard to care too much about them when the bullets start flying. As a collection of sound and movement, Olympus Has Fallen works like a charm, aided by Fuqua’s commitment to the hard-R and a grittiness you don’t see much of anymore. With guys like Yune, Eckhart and Morgan Freeman in the house, the questions grow even smaller, and you may be able to convince yourself that they don’t matter at all.
At the same time, however, the film’s grit and realism throw sand in the bigger picture, which ultimately derails the whole thing. Why try to convince us what an attack on the White House would really look like if the premise for the attack is so laughably flimsy? What’s the point of breaking down Secret Service protocol if you’re just going to throw it against an evil plan straight out of Roger Moore’s James Bond? We’re constantly pulled between embracing Fuqua’s terrific technique and giggling uproariously at his larger framework. Within that crucible, everyone has a breaking point, even action movie fans. The only question becomes when you reach it. Mine came at the very end, when the final twist appeared and I suddenly got a grade-A flashback to Team America. Yours may come earlier… or you may be able to cheerfully ignore them all and continue to enjoy yourself right on through the closing credits. If you can, more power to you; the film will reward such efforts and perhaps even merit a second viewing somewhere along the line. For the rest of you, buyer beware: this bit of popcorn carries too much bullshit to swallow with ease.