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Movie Review: “Olympus Has Fallen”

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Back in the ’90s, they used to make this movie two or three times every year. 

You probably remember them all: “Air Force One.” “Executive Decision.” “In the Line of Fire.” “Murder at 1600.” “The Rock.” High-concept action thrillers that involved some combination of the president, a hostage situation/assassination attempt/bomb, a whole bunch of explosions, and a badass hero who uses his brains and fists to save the day. You could say they all ripped off “Die Hard” to a certain degree, and you’d be right.

For most of the last 15 years this sort of movie has mostly disappeared, a casualty of the political fatigue brought on by Sept. 11, Iraq, and TV’s 24 pretty much taking over the genre. But now it’s back in cinemas with “Olympus Has Fallen,” the first of two movies this year in which terrorists attack the White House.

Directed by Antoine Fuqua, ‘Olympus’ is a conscious throwback to the action filmmaking of the ’90s. It’s completely ridiculous, and that’s an understatement. There’s just about nothing that happens in “Olympus Has Fallen” that stands up to the slightest bit of scrutiny. But it’s also a whole lot of fun.

“Olympus Has Fallen” has a plot largely lifted from “Air Force One” (minus the plane), while also mixing in bits of “Independence Day” (minus the aliens) and “In the Line of Fire,” with a subplot about a Secret Service agent haunted by a past mistake and determined to successfully protect the president this time.  

Aaron Eckhardt is the president, introduced talking tough about belligerence by North Korea in the DMZ, while Gerard Butler is the Secret Service agent. Eckhardt’s also got a first lady (possible future senator Ashley Judd) and a young moppet of a son, and if you’ve seen any of the movies above, you know they’re going to be eventually threatened.

Much like in last year’s little-seen “Red Dawn” remake, North Korea invades the United States, launching a devastating attack on Washington, D.C., by both land and sea, and capturing the White House with a ground invasion in less than 15 minutes. Kind of implausible, I know, considering North Korea’s real-life status as a basket case that can’t get its act together; I’ve got a feeling the villains, in the original draft of the script, were some nationality other than North Korean.

It’s up to Butler’s Jack Bauer stand-in to save the day, along with House Speaker Morgan Freeman and assorted other government officials, played by such respected character actors as Angela Bassett, Melissa Leo and Robert Forster. The main villain, played by “Fast and the Furious” veteran Rick Yune, is named “Kang”- and no, he doesn’t have a sidekick named Kodos. 

The movie is well-made throughout, with the invasion sequence especially well-handled and very scary, ridiculous as it is. The many fight sequences are pretty well-shot and never descend into a Bourne-style blur, although many of them are shot in the dark for some reason. Still, Butler is a passible hero; this is also literally the first movie he’s starred in in several years that isn’t open-and-shut terrible.  

Part of the fun is that there are all kinds of long-absent tropes of ’90s action thrillers that make sudden reappearances here: Launch codes that prominently feature the word “niner.” A completely unnecessary red digital clock counting down the seconds until the bomb explodes. A uniformed general in the Situation Room who wants to blow the bad guys to hell (most memorably Robert Loggia in “Independence Day,” Robert Forster here.) And one of the bigger names in the cast even dies surprisingly early, shades of Steven Seagal’s shocking demise in “Executive Decision.”  

The movie cares not one whit about political issues and its understanding of geopolitics is quite poor. One bad guy who has betrayed America justifies his treachery with a long speech about globalization that sounds like it was cribbed from a Matt Taibbi column in Rolling Stone. Occupy Wall Street did many things, but I don’t remember them threatening to assist North Korea in a coup against the president.

The howlers are plentiful, starting with the notion of al-Qaeda-style terrorists and sleeper cells coming from North Korea. Yune’s character is also given responsibility for the nonexistent “2004 South Korean embassy bombing.” That’s to say nothing of the ground invasion of the White House, taking place quickly and in broad daylight. During that sequence I kept thinking back to that scene on Da Ali G Show when Ali asked some former national security honcho if he worried about terrorists crashing a train into the White House.

But knowing all that, I still had a good time.”Olympus Has Fallen” may require checking your brain at the door, but if you’re a buff of the action cinema of the 1990s, you’ll find much to enjoy.

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