The secretary of defense has just taken an awful beating. Eyes bloodshot, blood crusted around her nose and mouth, doubled over in pain, she seeks to reassure the president, who’s bound up next to her with his hands above his head, awaiting his turn. The terrorists must have the nuclear launch code, and they’re prepared to nipple-twist the information out of him if necessary. The secretary leans over to him, asking, “How’s… my… hair?” The president replies, “Not a strand out of place.”
And there is but one example of why American thrillers involving the president—Absolute Power, Murder At 1600, Deterrence, Independence Day, Air Force One, etc.—are doomed to be completely ridiculous. Hackneyed scenes like the one above happen all the time in Die Hard knockoffs like Olympus Has Fallen, but they’re shrugged off more easily when they don’t involve the leader of the free world and a top Cabinet member. The opening scene has the president, played by Aaron Eckhart, trading blows with top Secret Service agent Gerard Butler in what appears to be the official White House boxing ring. This is not some ineffectual, “pen is mightier than the sword” type, the film implies, but a leader who signs bills with bruised knuckles and will literally stand and fight against tyranny.
Affirming the Red Dawn remake’s silly idea that an isolationist country like North Korea would carry out a brazen attack on American soil, Olympus Has Fallen has North Korean terrorists infiltrating a South Korean diplomatic entourage and going after the White House directly. After an air attack sends the president, the vice president (Phil Austin), and the secretary of defense (Melissa Leo) to an underground bunker, another terrorist unit emerges to hold them hostage. The line of succession puts the speaker of the House (Morgan Freeman) in charge, but his only man on the inside is John McClane Butler, who disappointed the president in an earlier crisis, but seeks redemption by playing the fly in the ointment. He also has a wife (Radha Mitchell) who’s a little miffed at him, because that happened in Die Hard, too.
Nearly everything that happens in Olympus Has Fallen is ludicrous, yet because the fate of the president and the nation hangs in the balance, the crisis is treated with the gravitas of Paul Scofield at the West End. The combination all but pumps laughing gas into the theater, as Trevor Morris’ score pounds with percussion, director Antoine Fuqua cuts away to a fraying American flag, and a rogue North Korean ideologue drives the country to the brink of nuclear holocaust. The one and only consolation for audiences is that the end of the world would never, ever happen this way.