Narratives need premises, that's just how it works. Without a premise, you've just got people standing around with nothing to do. So, let's go ahead and let Olympus Has Fallen have its premise: North Korean terrorists have taken over the White House, holding the president and several cabinet members hostage in a subterranean bunker, and only one grizzled Secret Service veteran with a tortured past can save the day by methodically shooting his way through all fifty armed soldiers hunting him. tl;dr - Die Hard in the White House.

Alright, so conceded. That is the premise of the film, and if it's going to get to its intermittently entertaining second act, it needs to establish that premise in some way. And golly, is that some way just the most terrible goddamn thing you've ever seen. I am not, by any conceivable stretch of the imagination, a military kind of guy. So when I'm sitting there, watching the film's depiction of how a band of Koreans sneak their way into America, into the White House and into the bunker, and I'm thinking almost non-stop, "No, that's not right. That wouldn't happen. That's impossible. No way", then that means they are big fucking plot holes happening. Allow me to mention only the first, and perhaps most obvious: the attack is started when a heavily armored plane enters restricted airspace via Chesapeake Bay and Virginia. A North Korean plane. So where the hell did it take off? Atlanta?

Compounding the generally insipid writing, the filmmaking itself is at a fairly low ebb during the initial attack, making it all the easier to notice the shabbiness of the script. It's not much of a secret that the film was pushed into production solely to beat this summer's White House Down to theaters, and the rush shows up in some exceedingly dodgy CGI - so many plumes of unconvincingly colored blood that appear to exist some considerable distance in front of the characters! - and chintzy props and sets, including a cable news station whose headline, seen in multiple shots, boldly proclaims "Terrorist Attack the Whitehouse". Which could be a subtle indication of how crazy things are, that a professional media organisation would permit two typos in a four-word phrase to be on the air for at least a couple of hours. But is almost certainly not that. This has the craftsmanship of an Asylum production because to a certain extent, that's what it is.

There are other, littler things too, like when the main character Mike Banning (Scotland-born Gerard Butler) and his wife (Australia-born Radha Mitchell) have a conversation about going on holiday, instead of vacation, and that would almost be something one could overlook if Butler's accent wasn't up and down so much throughout the movie. Just tiny details that are wrong, to go with the great huge screaming details that are quite impossible.

Indeed, the first quarter-plus of Olympus Has Fallen is so bad, in such a cornucopia of ways (including a groaner of a prologue, when Mike can save President Asher (Aaron Eckhart) but not the First Lady (Ashley Judd, overqualified for her cameo) from plunging into icy water, and so everybody is sad, 18 months later, when the Koreans come), that the fact it's able to redeem itself at all is one of the great miracles of the 2013 movie year so far. No, it's not any kind of all-time action movie classic, though given the place that genre has been wallowing in since January, it's taken very little effort for it to be by far the best action picture of the year (yes, this is better than A Good Day to Die Hard, but that's true of so many things), and it is frequently bone-stupid when it doesn't have to be, or worse, can't afford to be. But it is also, often enough that you can't write the whole movie off, sufficiently hard-hitting as an action movie that if you go in with an extremely specific set of expectations about what you want from an R-rated thriller released in March, it is likely to leave you satisfied. Butler's talents as an actor are inconsistent at best, within the film as across his career, but he's able to be menacing and throaty when it's called for, and to make it look like he truly just did end a motherfucker with a knife. Intricate character creation it's not, and he's so growly and angry that he almost manages to ruin the screenplay's handful of genuinely amusing action movie quips by playing them seriously (best line: "Let's play a game of 'fuck off'. You go first. [shuts the phone off on the bad guy]"). But as the anchor for a movie about hunting through the darkened ruins of the White House, shooting, stabbing, and punching, Butler does what he must to keep the movie functioning.

Director Antoine Fuqua doesn't do very much to make the action dance for the camera or otherwise seem like anything other than the meaty Butler pummeling and being pummeled, and we're still close enough to Skyfall that I, for one, am look for a touch more visual ingenuity in my fight scenes than just the routine fast-cutting on a rhythm. What Fuqua does well, then, is to keep the movie trotting along briskly - after the endless opening act, there's really not a single scene where it flags noticeably - and keeping up a gruff, grim attitude that is clearly the film's greatest strength; what it lacks in vitality it makes up for in intensity, and while its violence shades into nastiness a little too readily (surely, we didn't need quite such lovingly detailed post-beatdown makeup covering Melissa Leo's face after her Secretary of Defense has nuclear codes tortured out of her?), it at least has a gravity and sincerity about the effects of combat violence that a lot of American action films tend to gloss over. That, plus the always earnest presence of Morgan Freeman as the Speaker of the House/acting President, and Angela Bassett in a frustratingly little but authoritative performance as Banning's boss, and the voice of reason in a crazed situation room, buy Olympus Has Fallen at least some measure of grounded earthiness that helps to keep it from flying off the rails into total irrelevance given how ill-defined the terrorists' plot is for the most part, nor how obviously illogical, nor how fanciful (it's not worth belaboring how much North Korea is not capable of the things the movie requires it to be capable, but for serious: North Korea).

Make no mistake, the film is bad more often than it is good: at best, the setpieces have a .500 batting average, though the good ones are awfully good indeed, while everything involved more with the plot than the fighting is fairly disposable and tedious. And there's a lot of messy filmmaking, crude edits, and inexplicable shots (at one point, a shot urgently directs our attention to a portrait of Harry Truman, and lingers on it for a few frames that seem like days), all of which at least subconsciously take the wind out of the movie's sails. But frankly, anybody inclined to enjoy this film isn't going to pretend that it's anywhere near flawless, simply that the flaws don't matter. To the rest of us, the flaws matter. But the whole film honestly operates within a sufficiently circumscribed ring of mediocre competence that "flaws" and "strengths" are kind of big words to be throwing around, anyway.

Reviews in this series
Olympus Has Fallen (Fuqua, 2013)
London Has Fallen (Najafi, 2016)
Angel Has Fallen (Waugh, 2019)