“Olympus Has Fallen” is everything an audience nostalgic for the Steven Seagal killfests of the ’90s expects and deserves. ’Splosions. Shrapnel. White people being taken prisoner by nonwhite people, then rescued by white people. Cheesy banter. A lead actor who grumbles his tough-guy dialogue like he knows he’s The Man. Bodies riddled with bullets and a script riddled with clichés. It’s a terrible movie so generic in plotting and execution that its very familiarity will allow some fans to convince themselves it’s not that bad.
Gerard Butler, his eyebrows in a consternated V, plays a former presidential bodyguard demoted to a desk job after an accident on his watch scarred the First Family. He leaps back into action when a rogue force of North Koreans launch simultaneous air and ground assaults on the White House, which is hosting the South Korean premier. The sequestration budget cuts must have really undermined Homeland Security, since the protective response is about as successful as if Chief Wiggum led the charge. Missile defenses fizzle like soggy Roman candles. A phalanx of security men obligingly run into the barrage and fall like mannequins. Only Butler, who has mastered the art of running serpentine through machine gun fire, is left to take charge inside the darkened presidential residence.
Wow, is it ever darkened. About half the film unfolds in blackout conditions. Butler shoots and hand-to-hands his way through these grievously underlit corridors like a shadow puppet, which underscores how two-dimensional his role is. A memorable action guy needs more than fists of fury, he needs shtick. Butler’s signature move is stabbing a knife into his adversary’s head. Not much of a finishing move, really. When he kicked the Persian diplomat down the well in “300,” that was good shtick.
Antoine Fuqua, who peaked directing “Training Day,” persuaded some capable actors to climb aboard this death raft. There’s Morgan Freeman doing his pensive frown as Speaker of the House, who steps up as chief executive. Melissa Leo (“The Fighter”) breaks from her usual run of crass trailer-park gals to play the Secretary of Defense, a tough Hillary Clinton type who gets a brutal walloping from the villains. Rick Yune reprises his North Korean megalomaniac role from the Bond film “Die Another Day.” Aaron Eckhart plays the president as a useless blowhard who bellows that there will be no negotiating with these terrorists, then caves in like a cheap tent when they start slapping his staff around. If they presented this character note, or any of the plot points pilfered from “Die Hard” with a knowing wink, this might have been an enjoyably self-referential romp. Unfortunately, they give every evidence of taking it seriously and expecting us to do the same.