Director Antoine Fuqua’s latest film, Olympus Has Fallen follows former Secret Service operative Mike Banning (Gerard Butler) who is tasked with a sudden return to active duty – when a hostile force takes over the White House and lays ruin to Washington D.C. Abandoning his desk job at the treasury, Banning runs headlong into the fray, slipping inside the ravaged White House (codename: Olympus) before the terrorists cut-off outgoing communications.
Out-manned and out-gunned, Banning coordinates with Speaker, and acting President, Allan Trumbull (Morgan Freeman) along with Secret Service head (Angela Bassett) – quietly moving through the war-torn White House on a mission to free President Benjamin Asher (Aaron Eckhart) as well as discover the terrorist group’s true motivations.
In Olympus Has Fallen, Fuqua (King Arthur, Brooklyn’s Finest) attempts to marry his taste for gritty character drama with a one-man-army action storyline. In general, the pairing is successful – balancing enjoyable interactions and downright brutal action for an unrelenting storyline that moves quickly from setup to payoff. Most of the characters are one-note political cliches (for example: a tough-as-nails general played by Robert Forster), making room for the core terrorist narrative to take center stage – as one obstacle after another is placed in front of Banning. As a result, Olympus Has Fallen could underwhelm moviegoers expecting one of Fuqua’s riveting character dramas (Training Day) but should provide action fans (and flag-waving patriots) with plenty of wit, explosions, and machismo.
The White House/Washington D.C. setting definitely adds to the film’s intrigue. That said, with knowledge of the real-world locale and painstaking D.C. security measures, discerning moviegoers will find problems with plausibility in certain plot-points – since the movie pushes the boundaries of suspension of disbelief while at the same time relying heavily on familiar twists that viewers will see telegraphed ahead of time. Regardless, each setpiece is worthwhile, even when they’re not especially fresh or unique, and the most far-fetched elements still succeed in delivering entertaining return on investment - setting high stakes or providing Banning with an opportunity to spout a one-liner and flex his ex-U.S. Army Ranger skill set.
Thanks to a no-nonsense performance from Gerard Butler, Banning is the main draw for the film. After an explosive assault on Washington D.C. and the White House, the scale of the film tightens significantly – leaving behind extensive CGI pandemonium in favor of brutal fisticuffs in dark corners. There’s not much to the Banning character, his motivations are plain (he’s wracked with guilt from a past failure) but the attitude that he presents when talking to his contacts at the Pentagon or while tormenting terrorist operatives provides plenty of memorable encounters (and even laughs).
Olympus Has Fallen follows the one-man-army film pedigree to the letter (a resourceful hero facing-off against a well-armed villain) and while Banning doesn’t reach the time-tested marks of certain terrorist fighting do-gooders, he serves up plenty of explosive gunplay and bone-crunching fights to present a worthwhile action experience. Instead of filling one role in a multi-faceted rescue mission, Banning’s actions carry legitimate weight - every encounter is tense and the unfolding events make him believable as a solo killing force.
Most of the high-octane work is left to Banning (and the masked terrorists he dispatches) but an A-list batch of supporting players ground the personal drama. As mentioned, some of the characters (and their performers) riff heavily on established political and military figures that audiences will have seen in similar fare, including Angela Bassett as sympathetic but tough head of the Secret Service or Dylan McDermott as fellow-ex Secret Service operative Dave Forbes. These characters work in the context of the story but pale in comparison to far more interesting personalities like Eckhart’s altruistic President Asher or Melissa Leo’s unwavering Secretary of Defense, Ruth McMillan. Morgan Freeman revisits his Commander-in-Chief role from Deep Impact - as a similarly calm-under-dire circumstances Speaker of the House.
Given the stakes of the final story, along with a surprising amount of violence, Olympus Has Fallen would appear to take its subject matter very seriously but, at the same time, thin caricatures and a one-liner spouting protagonist put the film in a strange middle ground that may be off-putting to filmgoers who aren’t able to switch-off their brains.
Beyond suspension of disbelief, there’s one major plot point that is developed and teased, only to be swapped out at the last minute as an underwhelming and significantly less interesting red-herring – robbing one of the film’s most important characters of an opportunity to make good on promised drama. While Olympus Has Fallen does include some great character moments, the film is often at odds with Fuqua’s ambitions – resulting in an exciting action movie that mismanages several central story ideas and underserves central players.
Even when Olympus Has Fallen comes up short, it’s still an immensely entertaining (and very brutal) lone gunman action film. In several scenes, the movie checks all the necessary boxes and a provocative setup helps refashion familiar story beats through a fresh approach. Certain plot points and characters are underwhelming or muddled by a heavy reliance on explosions and knife work but Fuqua keeps a sharp pace, moving from one tense set piece to the next, rarely allowing viewers time to notice the film’s shortcomings.
Still, it’s clear that the director had ambitious intentions for Olympus Has Fallen: aiming for a clever character drama with biting political relevance and riveting action. While the film doesn’t quite deliver on every idea that it introduces, it excels in Fuqua’s principle goal – a captivating and uncompromising assault on the senses (where smart character moments are just an added bonus).
If you’re still on the fence about Olympus Has Fallen, check out the trailer below:
Olympus Has Fallen runs 120 minutes and is Rated R for strong violence and language throughout. Now playing in theaters.
Let us know what you thought of the film in the comment section below. For an in-depth discussion of the film by the Screen Rant editors check out our Olympus Has Fallen episode of the SR Underground podcast.
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