In Olympus Has Fallen, Gerard Butler plays Mike Banning, a former secret service agent who has been reassigned to a desk job after the accidental death of the First Lady. It has not been an easy transition; Banning feels the loss of his extended first family and drifts through his life disconnected from those around them. However, his shot at redemption comes when a small band of terrorists take over the White House under the guise of a peace envoy from South Korea. As the only man left alive, Banner must overcome his past failures to ensure that the leaders of the country are not used as pawns in a nuclear war against the United States.
While Olympus Has Fallen received comparisons to Die Hard even before it was released, the movie is not content to draw on only one inspiration and borrows heavily from across the genre. There is no shortage of ’90s action films that pit a lone agent against a small force of terrorists who have taken over a building or installation. I lovingly refer to these films as Only Hope We’ve Got movies—they often feature a roundtable of government officials who argue over what to do with their inside agent, only to have one character pound a desk and announce that he or she is the Only Hope We’ve Got.
Movies like Speed and The Rock represent the high notes of the genre, and if Olympus Has Fallen deserves any praise for its story, it is in how thoroughly it recreates its inspirations. Every stereotype is there: the skilled operative who has no business being in the field; the betrayal of a former ally; the failed strike team insertion; and the politically motivated actions of the terrorist. This provides a familiarity that works in the film’s favor. It does not need to try as hard to win us over because, on a certain level, the experience is all about reliving some of our favorite movies from the last decade.
Which isn’t to say that Olympus Has Fallen does not try very hard to win us over. The cast is populated with actors who command respect—Aaron Eckhart as the President, Melissa Leo as the Secretary of Defense, and Morgan Freeman as Speaker of the House all provide charisma that offsets any gaps in their character development. Unlike many contemporary releases, Olympus also eschews a PG-13 rating in favor of gratuitous head shots, clouds of CGI blood, and new and inventive usage of the word “fuck.”
The action also favors a more modern sensibility. Most of the fight scenes take place up close, featuring knives and pistols, and the presence of recent action favorites like The Raid is felt in both the casting and the choreography of the fight scenes. Director Antoine Fuqua makes every effort to marry the anachronistic storytelling with the brutality of modern action films, and there are scenes in the movie where the two sensibilities mesh well.
Still, it is this dedication to the genre that prevents Olympus Has Fallen from taking the next step and becoming a fully realized action staple of its own. The writers appear so determined to include every character archetype and adhere to every trope that they were afraid to throw anything out. This leads to characters like the president’s son Connor, who could have been the central driving force for Banner but is instead quickly saved and discarded for the majority of the film. We also have Banner’s wife Leah and the suggestion that theirs is a marriage on the rocks; she, too, disappears for large portions of the movie, and their relationship is never given more than a cursory glance. These characters are the film’s vestigial structures, archetypes who have been integral parts of other action movies but no longer serve a useful purpose. It is one thing to faithfully recreate the circumstances and conditions of an entertaining Only Hope We’ve Got action movie; it is another thing entirely to simply dump all the parts in the audience’s lap with no attempt at innovation. A few lines of dialogue acknowledging the clichéd situation or a streak of self-deprecating humor might have made all the difference in the world.
This, perhaps, is the final nod by Olympus Has Fallen to its predecessors. It set out to faithfully recreate movies like Under Siege and Broken Arrow, and it did—right down to the realization that maybe, just maybe, these movies weren’t quite as good as we remember.
Olympus Has Fallen opened on March 22 and is currently in theaters.