Some viewers may recall "Independence Day," the 1996 movie about a massive attack on the Capitol, the White House, and the most famous monuments of Washington, D.C. That picture inspired a curious delight among the usual right-wing haters, because they regarded it as an appropriate fulfillment of their endless litany of violent anti-government hysteria, and therefore cheered the destruction of the Congress and the presidency of Bill Clinton. What they will make of "Olympus Has Fallen," which depicts a similar strike, not by extraterrestrials but by North Koreans, may drive them into a tizzy of total ambivalence — on the one hand, a Democrat once again occupies the White House, but on the other, George W. Bush named North Korea as one of the three members of his infamous Axis of Evil. What's a Tea Bagger to do?
Judging by "Olympus Has Fallen" and the recent remake of "Red Dawn," North Korea now replaces the Nicaragua that so frightened Ronald Reagan, and the Soviet Union, which of course imploded two decades ago. Whatever North Korea's immense domestic problems, they apparently can mount a brilliantly orchestrated attack on what one commentator in the film calls the most heavily defended structure in the world, capture the president (Aaron Eckhart), the vice president, the secretary of state, the secretary of defense, and a few other assorted officials, and dictate terms to the entire military establishment. They ultimately attempt to detonate all American nuclear missiles in their silos, thus turning the nation into a wasteland and apparently guaranteeing themselves power and prosperity.
In the film, a North Korean terrorist named Kang (Rick Yune), who has infiltrated a diplomatic visiting party from the South, leads a rogue mission, assassinating the South Korean prime minister in the White House bunker while his terrorists attack the capital with airplanes, armored trucks, and small arms. A huge bomber shoots down a couple of American fighters, strafes the streets, killing hundreds of civilians, and topples the Washington Monument. The greatest military in the world, commanded from the Pentagon, just a few miles away, proves to be impotent in the face of a concerted attack by a relatively small, heavily armed force.
After the initial battle, the director concentrates on three related stories — the plight of the president and his cabinet secretaries in the bunker, the efforts of the interim president, Speaker of the House Trumbull (Morgan Freeman) to deal with the crisis, and the struggle of a Secret Service agent, Mike Banning (Gerard Butler), to work his way through the devastated White House and rescue the president's young son Connor (Finley Jacobson) and the hostages. The deft intercutting between the three plots maintains a high level of excitement and suspense; the convincing authenticity of the sets and the procedures of the terrorists, the military, and the agent help to balance the essential implausibility of the situation.
Banning's solo struggle against some 60 terrorists occupying the place also becomes a personal quest for redemption. He bears a burden of guilt for the events that open the film, a tragic car crash on icy roads that takes the life of the First Lady (Ashley Judd) 18 months before the Korean attack. His considerable skills and his knowledge of the geography of the White House enable him to succeed against tremendous odds on a highly dangerous and, as it turns out, insubordinate exercise in courage.
Aside from all the bombings and shootings, the picture displays an extraordinary amount of personal violence, numerous instances of hand-to-hand combat that end in broken necks, strangulations, and in one important instance, a knife through the brain. To show his determination, Kang coolly and suddenly shoots several unsuspecting victims on camera for the benefit of the command post in the Pentagon, and savagely beats a couple of the captives, including the female Secretary of Defense (Melissa Leo).
Mike Banning exhibits something of the same qualities as his chief adversary, acting with some of the same cleverness and ruthlessness that characterize Kang. Gerard Butler, in fact, also displays a quality that typifies the whole picture and makes him perhaps the right action hero for our time, a brutality that very closely approaches sheer sadism.