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It's still probably too soon for the 20-minute attack scene in Olympus Has Fallen. A full 11 years after 9/11 it is horrifying to see people in business suits running away from fireballs, to watch a major American icon (this time the Washington Monument) crumble, to watch people in power agog at the kind of destruction that's possible on their home turf. The improbable details of this attack-- which involves a North Korean plane with sophisticated missile-deflecting shields and a ton of North Korean moles in the South Korean government-- are irrelevant; this violent, visceral sequence is powerful and enraging. Director Antoine Fuqua is sharply raising the stakes of the action to come, offering not just a rah-rah adventure about saving the President, but the chance for retribution after what he's just put the audience through.
Is suffering through all that violence-- and the many, many acts of violence still to come-- worth it? Surprisingly enough, yeah. Essentially "Die Hard in the White House," with Gerard Butler's disgraced Secret Service agent Mike Banning as the only good guy left in action at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, Olympus Has Fallen takes a star performance and gallons of fake blood and stretches it into something both captivating and queasy. Once you get the initial attack out of the way, the film is contained to the shattered White House-- following both Banning and President Asher (Aaron Eckhart) and his top staff held hostage in the underground bunker-- and a situation room where the head of Secret Service (Angela Bassett) and the Speaker of the House-turned-acting President (Morgan Freeman) talk Banning through his rescue mission. There are some weaker moments when the film diverges from that tight setup, like superfluous cuts to Banning's wife (Radha Mitchell), but the lean low-budget approach really works (at least, a whole lot better than the distractingly bad CGI).
Butler, who has careened from one awful rom-com to the next for the last few years, is the best he's been since 300 as Banning, gruffer and more skilled than John McClane but also ready with quips (on the phone with the North Korean baddie played by Rick Yune, he signs off thusly: "How about you and I play a game of fuck off. You go first.") The crushing violence of North Korea's initial attack allows Banning to get away with cracking a whole lot of skulls, including one memorable fight in which a bust of Abraham Lincoln offers the final blow. Butler threads the very fine needle of playing a ready-for-everything action hero while also reflecting the toll of all this destruction; in an opening sequence we see just how much the President and his family mean to Banning, and Butler keeps that emotional tie alive through all of the film's noisy action.
Fuqua puts his thumb on the scale a bit too often in giving the film gravitas, from the lingering on all that violence to dreamy shots of tattered American flags and an unforgettably bizarre scene in which Melissa Leo's Secretary of Defense is dragged out of the room by the North Koreans, screaming the Pledge of Allegiance all the way. But Fuqua, working from Creighton Rothenberger and Katrin Benedikt's script, also backs off when needed as well, avoiding using the President's moppet son for cheap pathos, dispatching with twists efficiently, and leaning on Butler's appeal to sell moments that could have been overdone with dialogue. Olympus Has Fallen is as brash as a Super Bowl halftime show, bloodier than Gettysburg, and more far-fetched than Dennis Kucinich's endless runs for President. It is, in other words, very American. If you love this big, obnoxious country despite itself, you might feel the same way about Olympus Has Fallen too.