Why couldn't this have been the latest Die Hard movie?
Superficially, there's a different kind of narrative at work in this action thriller. Our hero, Mike Banning (Gerard Butler), is a Secret Service agent, and, of course, totally badass ex-Special Forces, shipped from presidential protection detail to a desk job after tragically failing to save the life of the First Lady. Eighteen months later, as tensions escalate in the DMZ, some nasty North Koreans, led by the ruthless Kang (Rick Yune), storm 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, taking the president (Aaron Eckhart) and several top U.S. government officials hostage.
Can Banning save the day when he becomes the lone surviving fly-in-the-ointment left inside the White House, as the country faces potentially apocalyptic consequences?
There are more disaster-movie elements at play, and a personal quest for redemption that was never really part of the John McClane dynamic. Yet fundamentally, Olympus grasps all of the major components that make a Die Hard-type thriller appealing.
Contained space? You got it. Hopelessly outmanned protagonist, slowly evening the odds through a combination of brute force and good old-fashioned American ingenuity? Sure. A suitably nasty villain with a clearly defined objective? Decidedly well-played on that count.
But perhaps under-appreciated in ticking off the "How to Make a Die Hard" list is being smart about how and where to build your big action set pieces. The initial attack on the White House makes for a compelling combination of chaos and clear indication of the tactical planning involved; in order to grasp what the good guy is up against, the audience needs a keen understanding for how competent the bad guys are.
Director Antoine Fuqua (Training Day) gives the violence a sense of real-world brutality, with civilians caught in the crossfire, and the combat feeling earthy rather than aestheticized. And there's a solid level of suspense beyond the action at key moments, particularly when Banning attempts to smuggle the president's young son (Finley Jacobsen) to safety. This is how action movies become more than just cascades of bullets and showy explosions: pacing, editing and a sense of something being at stake.
Of course, this one does have Butler as its central figure, which is ... a problem. I'm on record as not remotely getting why Butler continues to happen, whether as a romantic lead or an action hero. The physicality he brings to Olympus certainly makes him a threat to the villains, but it also makes him seem like less of an everyday guy working his way through an extraordinary situation — the key factor in Bruce Willis' performance as McClane that bumped the original Die Hard into the category of modern classic. More to the point, Butler continues to be about as uninteresting a leading man as we have in mainstream cinema.
And yet, still, Olympus clicks on most of the levels where you need genre movie-making to click. It's propulsively forward-moving in a way that minimizes your innate "wait, that's stupid" reflex; it serves up a few memorable one-liners; it even cares about us enough for the final showdown to include a big red digital countdown-to-armageddon clock. This should have been the kind of movie we get for John McClane and any decent action hero. The fact that we so rarely do is Hollywood's fly in our ointment.