'Olympus' has executive-level action
Making a bad action movie is famously simple. You just need a big budget for blood, explosions and a bankable star, and the movie practically makes itself. Just don't blow it all on one big, bloody explosion, and you're probably OK.
Making a good action movie, though, is really hard. Antoine Fuqua, who grew up in Pittsburgh, is one of the few working directors who has pulled it off more than once. He doesn't have an immediately distinctive style, but is able to assemble flashy, yet complicated action movies with lots of moving parts that generally make sense and make money. “Training Day,” in particular, set a standard that still makes most cop/crime flicks — including Fuqua's own “Brooklyn's Finest” (2009) — seem obsolete.
“Olympus Has Fallen” has a pretty simple set-up: Terrorists attack the White House and take the president (Aaron Eckhart) hostage. It's pretty similar in structure to the “Die Hard” and “Under Siege” franchises, with a lone tough guy — Secret Service agent Mike Banning (Gerard Butler) — stuck behind enemy lines in an enclosed, fortified space, with the good guys on the outside.
It's the detail that makes this interesting. The White House is the one residence in America that everyone knows, laden with symbolic and literal power. It's also a family home, a major tourist attraction, and a virtual fortress with many layers of security.
After a strafing run by a giant AC-130 gunship, dozens of heavily armed gunmen emerge out of the tourist throngs, initiating a coordinated military assault.
Banning was once on the president's security detail, and great friends with the family. After a freak accident claimed the life of the first lady (Ashley Judd), he was demoted to a dull desk job at the Treasury Department. But when he sees the unthinkable happening, he uses his knowledge of the White House to fight his way in.
Also scurrying around in the 19th-century nooks and crannies of the White House is the president's young son, hiding just the way his buddy Banning taught him.
Of course, if you think too much about this, it all falls apart (like, where did that giant aerial gunship come from?). But once you accept the basic premise — which is less insane than, say, North Koreans (aided by Russians) invading the U.S. in the “Red Dawn” remake — then most scenes hold together well enough. The bad guys are convincingly bad, and tension keeps building until the climactic battle.
There's lots of clunky dialogue, no memorable one-liners, and Butler barely has enough charisma for the job. But hey, making action movies isn't as easy as it looks.
Michael Machosky is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-320-7901.