If you're going to make a movie where the White House is destroyed and the fate of the American government hangs in the balance, it at least ought to be fun to watch. That may sound sacrilegious—I'm pretty sure even the Tea Party doesn't want Washington overrun by Korean terrorists—but after sitting through the ultra-glum Olympus Has Fallen, you realize that Roland Emmerich has the right idea: What's the point of blowing up lots of stuff and stirring deep-seated national paranoia if you can't have a blast doing it? Alas, Roland Emmerich didn't direct this movie.
Olympus Has Fallen is the first of two "Die Hard at the White House" movies we're getting this year. (The other, White House Down, stars Channing Tatum and is directed by Emmerich.) This one was directed by Antoine Fuqua, who's known for more standard thrillers/dramas like Training Day and Shooter. And so we get a very sincere action movie concerning Mike Banning (Gerard Butler), who used to be part of U.S. President Asher's (Aaron Eckhart) security detail before a freak car accident claimed the president's wife. (Asher dismissed Banning not because he blamed him, but because he didn't want to be reminded of the tragedy.) Now working a desk job, Banning is bored—that is, until a group of Korean extremists overwhelm the White House and take Asher hostage. Banning doesn't just need to save the free world—he needs a shot at redemption. (Funny how often they go hand-in-hand at the movies.)
It wouldn't be entirely accurate to say that Olympus Has Fallen is humorless. As Banning emerges as the one man who can infiltrate the White House and rescue Asher, he cracks wise in a warmed-over John McClane style that's supposed to be funny. And the fact that Morgan Freeman's Speaker of the House is forced into the role of acting president suggests that somebody involved in this film had a sense of humor about Freeman's past cinematic presidential experience. (Or maybe it was just flat-out lazy casting. With this movie, you just never know.) But on the whole, Olympus Has Fallen seems to have been put together with the notion "Hey, what would it really be like if the White House was taken over by terrorists?" Which makes it that much funnier when everything that occurs is executed in the most ludicrous manner possible.
I realize one has to suspend one's disbelief with movies like this, but the ease with which the terrorists pull off their attack wounds credibility from the start. (Conservatives who say Obama is weak on defense will lose their minds when they see this movie: All it takes is one plane to infiltrate Washington airspace and cause holy hell!) Olympus Has Fallen doesn't get any more plausible from there. The president's closest aides, who are being held with him in an underground bunker, are tortured until they surrender their parts of the country's closely-guarded nuclear passcodes, when, really, it would be a lot faster if the bad guys just used their super-smart tech nerds to just break the codes themselves. (Each one's, like, a series of eight letters and numbers.) Also, all the decorated military bigwigs around Freeman always give the worst advice, and nobody ever listens to Banning, even though his suggestions are always right. (Sadly, this is the only aspect where Olympus Has Fallen gets Die Hard right: Boy, did that movie have some really stupid authority figures in it.)
If the movie had a certain cockeyed irreverence to it—if it was in on the joke—we could laugh along at the sheer silliness. But, no, this is another of those movies, like last year's Red Dawn remake, that wants to remind us that there is nothing funny about the growing overseas threat to America. And so we get lots of helpful bits of dialogue about America never negotiating with terrorists and America being a symbol for freedom in the world, and so on and so forth. It's been a while since a film has used the flag as such a helpful, unironic indicator of how the movie's characters are doing. (Flags being thrown to the ground with bullet holes through it: America is in trouble. Flags being lit up by sunshine streaming through the stripes: We're back on top!) At least Emmerich had the good sense to have Bill Pullman's American president in Independence Day deliver his platitudes with the proper over-the-top zeal. Olympus Has Fallen really, really believes its shtick.
Nobody in the movie really embarrasses themselves; even Melissa Leo and Robert Forster are completely fine in an anonymous-character-actor kind of way. (And since the movie is a hard R, with lots of bloody violence, it is a kick to see Eckhart dropping some F-bombs as the POTUS.) But there's not one moment in Olympus Has Fallen that doesn't plod along with a dull, dutiful air. You're left to get your pleasures where you can. For me, I found myself enjoying Butler, who's far more compelling as a third-rate action hero than as a third-rate rom-com presence opposite Katherine Heigl. At least here he feels comfortable, growling one-liners and killing people. If nothing else, maybe Stallone will decide to cast him in The Expendables 5 someday.
Grierson & Leitch is a regular column about the movies. Follow us on Twitter, @griersonleitch.