The first of two similarly themed action dramas set for this year (“White House Down” arrives in June), “Olympus Has Fallen” will put to the test the question of whether American audiences are ready, 12 years after 9-11, to watch, strictly as disposable popcorn entertainment, a film in which the United States and some of its most prominent landmarks are devastated by foreign terrorists.
The answer almost undoubtedly will be yes, as a tough-guy former agent played by Gerard Butler gets to kick a whole lot of butt while trying to rescue the president. Although this is the sort of film in which the fate of the world hinges on a one-on-one martial arts contest, it still generates a fair amount of tension and produces the kind of nationalistic outrage that rock-ribbed Americans will feel in their guts.
Foreign revenue should be hefty as well, especially in countries where many viewers will get a thrill watching Washington get the sort of treatment usually reserved for places like Baghdad and Kabul.
The brilliant bad guy here is a (supposedly) rogue North Korean, who leads a bunch of skilled commandos on a violently staged raid of the White House that nets them the president and several key members of his staff as hostages.
Like Clint Eastwood in “In the Line of Fire,” Butler (who also produced) plays a disgraced presidential agent sidelined and haunted by a fluky failure, who suddenly and inadvertently finds himself back in the thick of a crisis.
Butler's character, Mike Banning, knows the White House inside and out due to his years serving not only the president but entertaining his young son Connor (Finley Jacobsen), who's somewhere in the building and whom attack mastermind Kang wants as the ultimate bargaining chip. The bulk of the film thus becomes an elaborate cat-and-mouse game between Banning, who, against great odds, taunts Kang and gradually reduces his minions' numbers in several ambushes and one-on-one struggles, and the North Korean megalomaniac, who begins extracting the secret codes that will allow him to control the American nuclear arsenal.
Meanwhile, stuck with sedentary roles as officials sweating it out at the Pentagon heavily linked by video, phones and computers are, among many others, Speaker of the House (and acting President) Trumbull (Morgan Freeman); Secret Service director Jacobs (Angela Bassett); and Gen. Clegg (Robert Forster), the gung-ho head of the Joint Chiefs.
The ordeal is an all-night affair, and unfortunately much of the White House action plays out in a murky, muddy darkness that has a very washed-out look; cinematographer Conrad W. Hall could have taken a tip or two from the incredible nocturnal, low-light-level work his father Conrad L. Hall did two decades ago in “Jennifer Eight.” Quite a bit of the action is obscured as a result.
To his credit, though, film director Antoine Fuqua sustains the suspense until near the end of two hours; only the final confrontation between Banning and Kang seems over-extended. The R rating results from tough and brutal scenes, including Kang mercilessly kicking and beating a hostage.