Notions of American exceptionalism don’t just win elections—they also represent Hollywood gold. Take Argo, sweeper of Oscars, with its honest Americans seeking to navigate hordes of brown people, or even Air Force One in which Harrison Ford (ever able to make the dumb catchphrase pop) tells Gary Oldman’s Central Asian terrorist to “get off my plane”—and then helps him do so. There is indeed something exceptional about a country that revels in its own national nightmares from the cold comfort of a movie theater, but there’s something very exceptional about a film so removed from contemporary geopolitics that it essentially reboots the paranoias of the Korean War simply for the sake of conjuring an enemy.
Antoine Fuqua’s Olympus Has Fallen is subtitled to all hell in an effort to convey the sense of a documentary, or at least a procedural. But Olympus is neither. It is instead the dark fantasy of a first-person-shooter, with Gerard Butler playing the all-purpose surrogate. Here, Butler is Mike Banning (Bruce Banner was taken), a Secret Service agent removed from the president’s security detail after the first lady (Ashley Judd) dies in a road accident. As President Asher, Aaron Eckhart looks his usual anodyne, electable self, as stolid in grief as he is in a time of national crisis. (He practically speaks to his family in talking points.)
While joyless, wordless choirs telegraph imminent doom, we are treated to establishing shots of D.C., helpfully labeled in the lower left-hand corner of the screen. (Procedure!) Soon, what appears to be an army of North Korean villains-for-hire takes the White House, killing dozens of the President’s agents and ruining some very nice suits. Meanwhile, a laughably epigrammatic arch-terrorist emerges, hatching a plan that involves the DMZ, some nuclear weapons, and a lot of knowing smiles. The only thing missing is a cat to stroke.
The bulk of the action takes place a year and a half after that car crash, and the date is July fifth, which prompts unflattering comparisons to the far zippier Independence Day. Curiously, it is Butler’s lone, wisecracking agent who does his best to carry the thing, just as it’s up to Mike Banning to exterminate any foreign nationals from the White House. Butler largely plays it cool; for all the darkness with which Fuqua tries to imbue the character, Banning emerges as a source of humor and relief. Morgan Freeman, who looked so electric in the trailers, plays speaker of the House and acting president Allan Trumbull, but spends much of his screen time slumped in a chair in the Situation Room, apparently confused by his presence there.
Who can blame him? The dialogue is so wooden it could serve as kindling: As terrorists drag her by her hair, Melissa Leo’s defense secretary recites—true story—the Pledge of Allegiance. Moreover, the dim vision of globalism as presented by Fuqua seems awfully retrograde. This is really a ‘90s movie (one hesitates to say pre-9/11), unconcerned with America as anything other than beacon or martyr. But Air Force One had some glorious little plot twists to it. (Hey, Wolfgang Petersen knows how to shoot enclosed spaces!) Olympus, meanwhile, is less a thriller than a single, 100-minute fight scene, its action never landing precisely because it never stops.