Bigger, Better Boom

Every once in a while Hollywood repeats itself in the same year by putting out movies with similar plots.  In 1997, volcanos were hot (pun intended) with Dante’s Peak and Volcano.  Neither one was great, though Volcano did have one of the best tag lines ever: “The coast is toast.”  The next year it was giant asteroids with Armageddon and Deep Impact.  This year it’s terrorist attacks on the White House.  Later this summer White House Down starring Channing Tatum and Jamie Foxx will be released.  The first movie out of the gate, though, is Olympus Has Fallen.

The movie begins with a Christmastime prelude.  President Benjamin Asher (Aaron Eckhart) is in residence at Camp David, along with his wife Margaret (Ashley Judd) and his son Connor (Finley Jacobson).  The Secret Service agent in charge of their protection, Mike Banning (Gerard Butler), is a friend to the Ashers, especially Connor.  While driving to a fundraiser for the President’s upcoming reelection, an accident puts both the President and the First Lady in peril.  Banning reacts properly, saving the president, but is unable to protect the First Lady.

Fast forward eighteen months.  It’s the day after Independence Day and Asher, who has won reelection, is preparing to greet the President of South Korea.  Banning has been banished from the White House to a desk job at Treasury, assisting the head of the Secret Service, Lynn Jacobs (Angela Bassett).  Banning’s wife Leah (Radha Mitchell), who works as a doctor in a DC hospital emergency room, knows how much he’s haunted by that night and tries to be supportive.

Shortly after the South Korean president arrives, a Lockheed AC-130 violates the restricted DC airspace.  Two jets sent up to investigate are shot down by the plane’s Gatling guns.  It shoots up the White House and the streets surrounding it before it’s finally shot down.  Banning has run from his office during the strafing, getting civilians out of the line of fire.   During the assault the Secret Service has moved the president and cabinet members, along with the South Korean delegation, into the secure crisis room below the White House.  It briefly appears the attack is over, but then North Korean commandos disguised as tourists launch a ground attack.  Banning takes out some of the commandos and makes his way into the White House.  The commandos, though, have superior firepower including heavy machine guns and rocket-propelled grenades.  Before you can say “Yippee kay yeah, mother****,” they manage to neutralize all the Secret Service agents except for Banning.  At the same time, several members of the South Korean delegation reveal themselves to be North Korean agents and take control of the White House bunker.

Yes, it’s Die Hard at the White House, though with a much bigger bang.  First-time screenwriters Creighton Rothenberger and Katrin Benedikt have actually come up with an assault scenario that holds water, and then they keep twists coming with the story.  Interestingly, the choice of North Koreans as the bad guys was made years ago, since the filmmakers didn’t want to have de rigueur Middle Eastern terrorists again.   While there’s obviously no connection, the current sabre-rattling by North Korea adds to the realism of the story. Director Antoine Fuqua (Training Day, Shooter) keeps the momentum of the movie racing forward, allowing the audience to suspend their disbelief as they get caught up in the story.  One caution – it will be clear from the short synopsis above that this is a very violent movie that may be too intense for some viewers, though the violence is necessary for the movie to be convincing.

This is a much better vehicle for Gerard Butler than the recent rom-com Playing For Keeps, and he brings the gusto he showed in 300 to the role.  (Butler also served as producer for the film.)  The movie features Morgan Freeman as the Speaker of the House who’s thrust into a 25th Amendment situation with both the President and Vice-president trapped in the White House.  Freeman has played presidents before and has even played God a couple of times, so the role’s not much of a stretch. However, as always he’s eminently believable and watchable.

Rick Yune plays Kang, the leader of the attack.  Yune has played a North Korean bad guy before – the man with the diamond-encrusted face who went up against Pierce Brosnan’s James Bond in Die Another Day.  (While his heritage is Korean, Yune was born in Washington, DC.)  With his smooth voice and imposing physique, he’s a worthy opponent for Butler.

The cinematography by Conrad Hall (American Beauty, Fight Club) is a cut above what you normally get in an action flick.  Mention must be given to Production Designer Derek Hill, who has done most of his work on series television in the past (Hatfields and McCoys, Community, House).  The exteriors of the White House were actually filmed in Louisiana and look finely detailed and realistic.  The only knock is that the lawn in front of the White House is larger than the one in the film.

It’s not art, but Olympus Has Fallen is artfully done, and gives the audience the excitement needed in a thriller.  The bar has been set high for White House Down.

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