‘“Die Hard” in the White House’ was presumably the six-word pitch for Antoine Fuqua’s “Olympus Has Fallen,” a brawny action blockbuster which, given how piss-poor John McClane’s 2013 Russian vacation turned out, can pride itself as the best darn “Die Hard” movie of the year so far. Standing in for Nakatomi Plaza, 1600 Penn is under siege: following a devastating airborne assault on D.C. that results in the legs-crossing destruction of the famously phallic Washington Monument, North Korean goons armed with guns and grenades storm the White House and take hunky President Asher (Aaron Eckhart, “Rabbit Hole”) hostage in the building’s impenetrable underground bunker.
Their goal: get the US government to order the retreat of Western forces in Korea while extracting nuclear launch codes from the President and his staff. If the government fails to comply, Mr President gets it in the back of the head. Enter Mike Banning (Gerard Butler, “Playing for Keeps”), an ex-Secret Service agent who sneaks in through the front door unnoticed during the initial attack and whose very particular set of skills sure come in handy: one by one, he takes out the terrorist scumbags like an unstoppable cross between John McClane and Jack Bauer, albeit with a Scottish brogue dancing merrily on the tip of his supposedly all-American tongue.
Watching “Olympus Has Fallen," one can’t help but recall just how great John McTiernan’s ‘88 action masterpiece really was: not just thrilling Friday-night entertainment, it boasted a bravura, star-making performance from Bruce Willis and was particularly impressive in how it maintained a perfect balance between McClane’s cocky heroics, Cali’s clueless police force and Alan Rickman’s smarmy villainy. Fuqua’s film doesn’t quite nail that balance, with Banning’s butt-kicking not as prominent as it should be, and frankly, Butler’s no Brucie. Yet the film is enjoyable, with the action refreshingly brutal and bloody, Rick Yune (“Die Another Day”) making for a coldly sinister villain and Butler getting in some memorable wise-ass cracks: “How about we play a game of fuck off?” he snaps at Yune’s terrorist mastermind via walkie talkie. “You go first.” Fuqua, meanwhile, keeps the action tough, tense and pleasingly preposterous, though it’s often let down by crummy VFX — considering the $70 million budget, you’d think Fuqua and his crew could afford digital effects rendered after the turn of the century.
Coincidentally, another ‘“Die Hard” in the White House’ flick is coming in September: Roland Emmerich’s “White House Down,” which, in a bold move, dresses leading man Channing Tatum in McClane’s iconic muddied wife-beater. Beating “Olympus Has Fallen” in the fun department would be a fair, if not extraordinary feat, but topping its corny, flag-waving jingoism will be tough: count the number of times Old Glory is seen fluttering majestically in the wind while a drum-martial score thunders triumphantly in the background. Oh, and there’s a scene in the Oval Office where Butler bashes a badguy’s brains in with an iron bust of Abraham Lincoln. God bless America.