Chalk it up to prescience or just dumb luck that the writers of “Olympus Has Fallen,” an efficient if unimaginative version of “Die Hard” in the White House, chose to make their movie’s villain a terrorist mastermind from the Korean peninsula. At a time when North Korea abrogated its 50-year armistice with South Korea just days before launching a possible cyberattack on its democratic neighbor, “Olympus Has Fallen” at least possesses the frisson of timeliness amid otherwise hoary action-movie cliches.
Gerard Butler plays Mike Banning, a Secret Service agent whose close relationship with President Benjamin Asher (Aaron Eckhart) and his son Connor (Finley Jacobsen) is destroyed after a rescue mission goes awry. After that harrowing prologue, the film catches up with Banning as he miserably toils at a desk job in the Treasury Department, looking longingly out the window to the White House he once navigated with granular architectural knowledge and macho assurance.
Those qualities will come in handy when a visit from the South Korean prime minister ends with Asher, the vice president and the secretary of defense (played in hysterical pitch and horrible wig by Melissa Leo) being abducted and held hostage in the White House bunker. Director Antoine Fuqua, working from a script by Creighton Rothenberger and Katrin Benedikt, stages the takeover of 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. and its environs with unsettling, visceral mayhem, as hundreds of civilians are strafed, bombed and shot; nearby, the Washington Monument crumbles in a distasteful reenactment of the destruction of Sept. 11, 2001. Perhaps we can now stipulate that 9/11 has earned permanent “too soon” status when it comes to exploiting potent visual iconography in the name of pop entertainment.
After 20 minutes of unmitigated carnage, it’s Banning who’s left standing. Played with bland humorlessness by Butler, he dispassionately dodges every bullet and booby trap to gain access to the White House, where his experience with the building’s secret doorways and hidden ductwork stands him in good stead as he engages in a bloody cat-and-mouse game with a mysterious villain named Kang (Rick Yune) and his seemingly endless supply of vicious, black-clad commandos. All the while, he keeps up a deadpan sat-phone patter with his bosses at the Pentagon — House speaker and acting president Allan Trumbull (Morgan Freeman), the director of the Secret Service (Angela Bassett) and the head of the Joint Chiefs of Staff (Robert Forster).
While the devastating events outside are captured with cheesy-looking special effects and graphic brutality, once “Olympus Has Fallen” gets to the Oval Office, the Lincoln Bedroom and the White House’s lesser-known corridors, most of the action consists of subtle neck snaps, knifings and kill shots that Banning executes in a series of quick, lethal encounters. (It’s one of the film’s good guys who comes in for the most sadistic treatment, in a pulverizing beat-down that could easily have been avoided with a few well-timed words from the boss. Feel free to speak up anytime, Mr. President!)
Just a few months ago, we were given a worshipful portrait of the White House and its most popular occupant in Steven Spielberg’s handsome historical drama “Lincoln.” In “Olympus Has Fallen,” the 16th president isn’t a fascinatingly complex figure but — literally — a blunt instrument used to dispatch a wily foreign opponent. Rather than the locus of messy democracy and murky political choices, the White House has reverted to a once-and-future citadel of American triumphalism justified by unimpeachable moral outrage. Fuqua puts us right where we want to be when it comes to patriotic spectacle: on top and aggrieved. Spring is barely here, and America already has its first summer blockbuster.
R. At area theaters. Contains strong violence and profanity. 118 minutes.