In the weeks and months after 9/11, it was reported that the United States military was recruiting Hollywood screenwriters to help predict potential follow-up attacks. The new thriller 'Olympus Has Fallen' plays like the craziest, silliest entry from that post-9/11 doomsday scenario slush file -- a passionately loony blend of 'Die Hard' cliches and feverish right wing paranoia. If only the execution of this White House home invasion fantasy was half as entertaining as its conception.

But we're getting ahead of ourselves. Before Olympus -- Secret Service code for the White House -- can fall, our hero must fall, along with the First Lady of the United States (Ashley Judd), who perishes when the Presidential limo slides off an icy bridge in a bad snowstorm. Secret Service Agent Mike Banning (Gerard Butler) narrowly rescues President Benjamin Asher (Aaron Eckhart) from the teetering car right before it plunges into the frozen waters below, but with the First Lady's death, his presence is a grim reminder of the tragedy. That's why eighteen months later Banning's working in the Treasury Department with a fortuitous and fortuitously metaphorical view of the White House from his desk job office window.

The day after July 4th, with the streets of Washington D.C. littered with the also fortuitously metaphorical red, white, and blue refuse of hundreds of Independence Day celebrations, the Prime Minister of South Korea arrives for an important meeting with President Asher. But with an alarmingly effective mix of a well-armed cargo plane, a couple of garbage truck mounted machine guns, a few suicide bombers, and about 40 heavily armed men, a North Korean madman named Kang (Rick Yune) is able to breach the White House, kill every single Secret Service agent at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, and hold the President, the Secretary of Defense (Melissa Leo) and other top military advisers hostage in a heavily fortified underground bunker.

The one monkey wrench in the evildoers' plans is Banning, who watches the early stages of this attack from his window, then heads to the White House to help. With a little -- okay, a lot -- of luck and a little -- okay a hugely embarrassing -- lapse in White House security, where apparently the passcodes aren't changed even once in eighteen months, Banning is able to sneak inside, becoming the only American operative left to stop the terrorists and save the President.

It's a totally absurd scenario, and it only gets more absurd after Kang starts making demands from the acting President, Speaker of the House Trumbull (Morgan Freeman), for a top secret weapon he couldn't possibly know we possess. But totally absurd doesn't preclude totally silly fun -- and the screenplay by Creighton Rothenberger and Katrin Benedikt is at least self-aware enough to acknowledge, in amusing winks and lines of dialogue, that this is a big stupid movie about big awesome American do-gooders overcoming big terrifying evil.

What's less amusing is how cheap everything in 'Olympus Has Fallen' looks, from the bargain basement special effects to hokey sets. In its worst moments, 'Olympus' looks like its own direct-to-video rip-off mockbuster. The budget was apparently so low it seemingly precluded the use of lights: almost all of Banning's adventures in the White House take place in murky darkness (the bad guys cut the White House's power, you see), turning the action scenes into frustrating guessing games -- "Wait, did Gerard Butler just stab that guy? No, okay, he punched him -- no, no wait, I was wrong. He did stab him." Dammit, this is big awesome America! And in big awesome America we're supposed to light our action scenes so we can see what the hell is going on when Gerard Butler stabs people in the face!

With the action mostly a bust, it's up to the actors to bear most of the load. And, actually, they do a pretty credible job of it. Morgan Freeman has this sort of stately, wise leader role down cold (he played basically the same part in 'Deep Impact'), and he wrings every last bit of drama out of each beat he's given -- he has a great moment where, presented with the hardest decision any American leader has ever had to make, he puzzles things over silently then nonchalantly orders a cup of coffee. Eckhart, who is quickly becoming the modern exemplar of assailed American leadership (see: 'The Dark Knight,' 'Battle: Los Angeles'), smolders and suffers effectively as the cornered Commander in Chief.

Dylan McDermott tears into his role as a former Secret Service agent turned member of the South Korean security detail like a man who think he's got a shot at an Oscar -- he doesn't, but the effort expended in screaming and sweating his way through a small but crucial part is greatly appreciated. And even if Butler doesn't quite fill the shoes (or lack thereof in this case) of Bruce Willis as the quipping hero trapped in a fortified building with a bunch of terrorists, his iffy American accent is improving and he remains an agreeably gruff leading man.

The results are, to say the least, a wildly mixed bag. If you like your 'Die Hard' knock-offs patriotic in the extreme, with lots of great character actors in rumpled suits and ties looking solemnly at computer screens, you could do a lot worse. If you like your action coherent rather than shaky, dark, and bloody, though, you could do a lot better. Possibly in 'White House Down,' another thriller with a nearly identical plot (Secret Service agent versus terrorists in the White House under siege), which opens in theaters in June. I hope that version has a bigger budget. And more working lights.


'Olympus Has Fallen' opens in theaters on March 22.

Matt Singer is a Webby award winning writer and podcaster. He currently runs the Criticwire blog on Indiewire and co-hosts the Filmspotting: Streaming Video Unit podcast. His criticism has appeared in the pages of The Village Voice and Time Out New York and on ‘Ebert Presents at the Movies.’ He lives in Brooklyn with his wife, dog, and a prop sword from the movie ‘Gymkata.’

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