But will it do so if the stakes are high enough?
This is the conundrum facing top-ranking government officials in “Olympus Has Fallen,” a highly entertaining political thriller directed by Antoine Fuqua (“Training Day”) and starring Aaron Eckhart, Gerard Butler, and Academy Award-winner Morgan Freeman.
As the film begins, President Benjamin Asher (Eckhart), his wife, Margaret (Ashley Judd), and their son, Conner (Finely Jacobsen), are en route from Camp David to an elaborate party accompanied by Secret Service Agent Mike Banning (Butler) and his team. Banning is a former U.S. Ranger and the president’s close personal friend in addition to being the head of the group assigned to protect him.
Now I must be very careful here not to give anything away, and so we’ll just say that a serious incident occurs during the trip, and the film moves ahead 18 months. Because of what happened, Manning has been transferred to the Treasury Department, where his office overlooks the White House, and it is at this point when all hell breaks loose.
Shortly after President Asher welcomes the prime minister of South Korea to the White House, North Korean terrorists launch an all-out assault on the White House on both the ground and through the air. The orchestrator of the attack is a North Korean former terrorist named Kang Yeonsak (Rick Yune), who blames the United States for the death of his parents and who demands that the U.S. military forces withdraw from North Korea. He also wants the codes for something known as Cerebrus so he can destroy all of America’s nuclear weapons.
After the devastation to the White House, the president and some of his top cabinet members end up down in the bunker with Yeonsak and some of his cronies. This guy is a ruthlessly sadistic bastard who would just as soon shoot people in the head as look at them, and he takes great pleasure in physically abusing some of the president’s staff members.
While all of this is transpiring, Manning, who remains fiercely loyal to the president despite being demoted for something that really was not his fault, has witnessed the attack on the White House from his office window and subsequently has managed to sneak into the shambles that once was the Oval Office without being detected by the terrorists. And now what we basically have from this point on is a retelling of “Die Hard” set in the White House.
After the president and vice president are taken to the bunker, Speaker of the House Allan Turnbull (Morgan) takes over as president, and Manning is able to contact him. A man of few words, Manning says simply, “I’m here. Use me.” Thus the rest of the film chronicles Manning’s efforts to rescue the president.
Despite two details that bothered me about it, “Olympus Has Fallen” is a fine action film that grabs you from almost the outset and holds your interest until the very end. All of the performances are excellent, and the film boasts plenty of action and suspense along with a few humorous lines to offer some welcome comic relief at just the right moments. Of particular interest to me in the movie was the work of the Secret Service agents and their willingness to do anything to protect the president, including jumping in front of a bullet aimed at him. In the film’s production notes, Fuqua explained how the Secret Service helped motivate him to make the film.
“Think about that for a second. Your job is to prevent the president and his family from being hurt. You are expected to step in front of a bullet, if necessary. I don’t know too many people who would volunteer to do that. My appreciation for them is phenomenal. Their lives are constantly at risk and when I learned all of this, I wanted to honor them with this movie.”
Eckhart is outstanding his role as the president, and both Angela Basset and Melissa Leo turn in fine performances as the head of the Secret Service and the Secretary of Defense respectively. Of course, not much can be said about Freeman that hasn’t been noted before. He’s simply one of the finest actors alive, and in the production notes, Fuqua was generous in his praise of him.
“Morgan brings a majesty to everything he does. He is one of our great actors. When he agreed to do the film, it immediately elevated the project. What I find special about him is that he brings so much power to a role, and yet there’s always a gentleness about him. If the nation were falling, I would want someone like Morgan Freeman to take the helm. He’s a national treasure, and it was an honor to work with him.”
The character who really makes this film work, however, is Manning, and Butler plays him to the hilt. This guy is John Rambo, Jack Bauer, and John McClane all rolled into one fearless enforcer who becomes Yenosak’s (Yune makes a great villain.) worst nightmare. By the time the film ends, we have still another movie character to add to the list of all-time indestructible heroes.
The movie also offers some stellar special effects, and the scenes of desecration to the White House and Washington are so good that they become quite disturbing as we watch our nation’s capital under siege. And seeing the White House reduced to smoldering rubble is most disquieting.
As much as I enjoyed he film, however, two things bothered me. In the first place, I couldn’t accept the reason for Manning’s demotion as a viable one given his history with the president. It just didn’t ring true. And I also dislike films in which many of the action sequences occur in such subdued lighting that it’s difficult to see who is shooting at whom.
That being said, I still highly recommend “Olympus Has Fallen” (Give it solid seven.) as a captivating and intriguing thriller. The scenes in the bunker are particularly effective, and it’s a film that will set you thinking about our country’s vulnerability to terrorism. And it’s really unnerving to think what could happen if indeed Olympus ever falls.