While a sternly resolute hero remains the prime ingredient, an action film rises and falls on the strength of its villains. If they don’t make the audience want to see ballistically righteous justice delivered unto them, all the shooting and punching and stabbing in the world isn’t going to save the movie. Die Hard may have made John McClane an icon, but without Hans Gruber and company, he might as well have been playing a generic first-person shooter, mowing down nameless thugs we watch die without a second thought.
Olympus Has Fallen certainly doesn’t shirk its responsibility of making us really root against the bad guys. Not since Independence Day had its alien invaders happily destroying landmarks has a film tried so hard to assure us that these are Very Bad People. The villains here — North Korean terrorists bent on visiting the same misery and despair on the United States as they believe the U.S. caused in their country — shoot down Air Force fighter jets, Army helicopters, hundreds of innocent pedestrians, about half the Secret Service, the top of the Washington Monument and most of the White House. And just in case the audience was still on the fence, they disdainfully toss a bullet-ridden U.S. flag off the top of the White House in a scene with enough slow-motion reverence to make Michael Bay jealous. So when Gerard Butler’s Secret Service agent Mike Banning starts blasting his way into the fray, we’re more than ready to see him find a new home for his bullets.
There’s nothing here that’s going to make anyone forget Die Hard. But it will make you forget Under Siege and Sudden Death and the raft of other pale imitations. A lot of it has to do with the sheer scale of the thing. The assault on Washington D.C. that gets the ball rolling is jaw-dropping in its ferocity and scope. It might not stand up to a lot of real-world scrutiny, but in cinematic terms, it’s visceral and escalates and sets the stakes by trading on the powerful symbolism inherent in our nation’s capital. It’s our country under attack, and by extension us, and that makes us a little more involved.
A few opportunities feel missed. The final confrontation with the terrorist ringleader doesn’t feel quite as epic as it should, and there are some moments early on that seem to exist to set up later payoffs that never really come to anything. In particular is a moment when Banning quizzes the President’s son on various security protocols in the White House, which seems to be foreshadowing the boy’s knowledge playing a key role later on. Granted, this is a hard-R action film, and Banning escorting a kid around a battle zone wouldn’t make much sense, but it felt as though we were being prepared for something that never came into being.
But in the end, I go into a film like this wanting big, loud, uncomplicated entertainment, and on that score, Olympus Has Fallen doesn’t disappoint. The threat builds nicely, the action is well done, and everyone involved hits just the right notes so the film doesn’t take itself too seriously but also never veers into the ridiculous. There’s another “Die Hard in the White House” coming later this year, White House Down. That one might have a little more star power in Channing Tatum and Jamie Foxx, but its thunder has certainly be stolen. And it’s got its work cut out making us hate the bad guy.