It’s not as if it’s taboo to mine the American presidency for outrageous popcorn-movie entertainment. Recall Harrison Ford as a two-fisted commander in chief in “Air Force One,” or freshly sprung president/hostage Donald Pleasence grabbing an Uzi at the end of “Escape From New York.” We could also talk about “Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter,” but let’s not.
Now comes “Olympus Has Fallen,” which casts Gerard Butler in “Die Hard” mode as a Secret Service agent left to single-handedly rescue the president (Aaron Eckhart) from North Korean terrorists who’ve taken the White House. But this is no Bruce Willis smirkfest. We’re halfway through the movie before director Antoine Fuqua (“Training Day”) starts giving Butler the occasional dark quip, and by that time it’s an insufficient weapon. Pop jingoism isn’t easy to stir once you’ve established a vibe that’s so deflating. In a post-9/11 world, how do you show catastrophic imagery of the Washington Monument crashing down (at the hands of someone other than aliens, at least), and then invite the audience to hop aboard for a rah-rah thrill ride? Awkwardly, that’s how.
“Olympus” opens with Butler’s Mike Banning forced to make a terrible choice when a caravan carrying the president and the first lady (Ashley Judd) meets with calamity. It’s an episode that could have been an entire movie — arguably a smarter one. How best to serve a man who’s not only leader of the free world, but your home-gym sparring buddy on Camp David weekends? (Take that, “Mad Hops” Obama.) Banning does his duty and saves his boss’s life, but at what cost to the president? And to himself? Though the questions are there to ponder, the script just plows ahead to show that Banning has been shunted over to a job in the Treasury Department, relegated to life on the outside looking in.
Is Banning a burnout destined to stumble into a second chance? A patriotic redemption seeker determined to create that chance? An action-junkie headcase with a flair for one-liners? Butler, whose meat-and-potatoes heroism deserves a little love beyond the “300” fanboy ranks, seems up for exploring the answers. But the movie flashes these various takes without making the effort to commit to any of them. No time, you know? The North Koreans are hitting D.C. in an extended Trojan horse-style siege. The plausibility is shaky – and before getting into broader, “informed” geopolitical allusions, maybe they could’ve corrected a TV news graphic teasing a “Whitehouse” update — but it’s an unsettling exercise in living-nightmare screen mayhem, anyway.
The rest is disaster movie gloss. Rick Yune, who played a Bond villain in “Die Another Day,” essentially plays one again as the terrorists’ showboating leader. Eckhart’s prez says he’ll never (ever!) surrender secret missile codes, then promptly caves. Morgan Freeman steps in as acting president (remember “Deep Impact,” where his presidential casting was progressive?), and frets with Washington heavyweights Angela Bassett and Robert Forster. Melissa Leo’s defense secretary blubbers under torture — or maybe at the thought that this is what an Oscar for “The Fighter” nets you.
Butler serves the cause well, considering. Think that cause is a thankless one? Shhh, don’t tell Secret Service agent Channing Tatum or president Jamie Foxx, headed your way in June with, yes, “White House Down.”