There’s a difference between stupid and dumb. A stupid movie just takes your money and wastes your time. It’s a business plan on a big screen. But a dumb movie can be triumphant, even transcendent in its joyful idiocy.
Olympus Has Fallen is such a film. It does Die Hard better than Die Hard and is the definition of a guilty pleasure. Directed by Antoine Fuqua (Training Day) and seemingly scripted by the Three Stooges, it is big and dumb and more fun than a barrel of Bruce Willises.
How great is it? When you leave, you actually like Gerard Butler again. All the stupid rom coms, plus whatever the hell Chasing Mavericks was supposed to be, are forgiven. Traditionally, this degree of career rehabilitation could be achieved solely through absolution by Oprah.
Butler plays Secret Service agent Mike Banning, a one-time member of President Benjamin Asher’s (Aaron Eckhart) security detail banished to a desk job so the commander-in-grief won’t be reminded daily of a personal tragedy his bodyguard was unable to prevent.
The agent gets his shot at redemption when All Hell Breaks Loose in the capital. Literally. One hundred percent of the available hell. And part of what makes the mayhem so entertaining is the way the filmmaker doesn’t even bother pretending it’s not 100 percent preposterous.
Among the events that could never happen except in a dumb action thriller: A plane descends from the clouds above D.C. and proceeds to shoot down Air Force fighter jets, strafe stampeding citizens and obliterate computer-generated tourist attractions. The slo-mo crumbling of the Washington Monument uncomfortably mirrors images from 9/11. Too soon? Not for Fuqua.
Outside the White House, a busload of armed foreigners awaits a signal. Inside, the president and his staff greet a delegation from South Korea, a motley crew that appears to have gotten fashion tips from a Colombian drug lord. They so don’t give off diplomatic vibes that we barely blink when the bad guys rush from the bus to storm the place, and the “South Koreans” reveal themselves to be North Korean terrorists on a mission to destroy the USA. Step one: Take the president and a gaggle of cabinet members hostage.
I’ll reveal no more about their evil plan, except that the head terrorist is a humorless fanatic played by Rick Yune, a former model who played a humorless fanatic in Die Another Day. That was probably good training for the part, though I doubt it prepared him for the scene where he opens up an unchivalrous can of whoop-ass on Secretary of Defense Melissa Leo.
It’s weird. The guy blows up half of Washington, but it’s watching him kick Leo’s character around like a rag doll that really whets our appetite for the climactic death match between him and the movie’s hero. That didn’t count as a spoiler, right?
With Dennis Rodman nowhere to be found, it falls to Banning to deal with the North Koreans, and he does so with just the proper blend of snark and carnage. The odds are laughable, but, hey, this isn’t math class. It’s a retro exercise in jingoism arriving at an opportune historical moment.
We love seeing terrorists get what they deserve as much as ever, but we’ve lost our appetite for large-scale military intervention. So the national mood is ripe for a good, old-fashioned one-man war (even if a Scotsman happens to be standing in for the usual butt-kicking American standing in for the viewer). It’s a thing of totally bonkers beauty, the height of schlock and awe.
Or at least, I think it is. We won’t know for sure until June, when Channing Tatum stands in for Butler and does the whole thing all over again in Roland Emmerich’s White House Down.
* Running time: 120 min.
* Rated: R