Turns out the best Die Hard movie of 2013 isn’t the one with “Die Hard’ in the title. Olympus Has Fallen has the distinction of accomplishing what no Die Hard film since the 1988 original has bothered trying to duplicate — indulging in the satisfaction of watching the hero move stealthily through the twists and turns of a mostly empty building, picking off bad guys en route to saving the hostages.
The building in this case is the White House, and the hostage-nonpareil is the president of the United States (Aaron Eckhart, The Dark Knight) along with members of his staff. Gerard Butler (300, Law Abiding Citizen) plays Mike Banning, a secret service agent who suffers a fall from grace — in his own eyes — when the First Lady dies while he is saving the president during an nighttime accident on an icy bridge.
Everything about Olympus Has Fallen is amped up for maximum American boot-in-your-ass jingoism. Eckhart and his granite features embody the movie’s square-jawed take on heroes and affirmation of American exceptionalism (the movie is bookended with close-up shots of the flag curling and uncurling in the breeze while patriotic, militaristic music swells).
In the 18 months after the tense prologue that requires Banning to fall from grace and seek redemption, he's been reassigned to the Treasury Department, a job he’s not happy with, but he needn’t worry: He’ll soon be sending people to the grave and proving his worth. The catalyst for this heroism is a balls-to-the-wall attack on the White House staged by a paramilitary terrorist group from enemy du jour, North Korea. The attack is a tense set piece that director Antoine Fuqua (Training Day) choreographs for maximum damage and carnage. Fuqua makes sure the Americans get beaten down good so that the rise can be commensurately triumphant. Banning the hero runs into the fray, saving those he can and gunning down the enemy. He's a take-no-prisoners guy — once he’s done with an interrogation, it's time for a dirt nap.
With Eckhart’s president and his vice president out of action, Morgan Freeman’s speaker of the house is promoted to POTUS, and ends up becoming Banning's valuable ally. Olympus Has Fallen has every familiar trope of the action genre: upper brass working from a control room of video walls; bad guys who pace triumphantly before their fallen foe; sassy backtalk from the hero. Banning even gets his own Hans Gruber. Rick Yune (Die Another Day) is Kang, the group’s ringleader whose method of terrorism is simply putting a bullet in another official’s head while the acting government looks on helplessly. Just as Gruber’s stated demands were a diversion from his real goal, Kang isn’t satisfied with the U.S. pulling its fleet from the sea of Japan. Dylan McDermott, who once played Clint Eastwood’s green fellow Secret Service agent (In the Line of Fire) gets to play turncoat here. His scene with Butler, where he pretends to be one of the hostages who got away, is lifted straight from Die Hard.
Almost nothing here is believable, including the raid on the White House, but the whole shebang is staged and acted with conviction. It's a live-action comic book, and seen through that prism, Olympus Has Fallen entertains.