There is already a vast body of action films stretching back quite some time which imagine the various threats to the United States and how they will be (inevitably) overcome by the power of a lone individual and a massive armoury of weapons. Even this film is only one of two this year about the White House (aka “Olympus”) itself being taken over by terrorists. Sometimes it feels as if every possible permutation of scenarios has already been played out in the movies, and so the strong resemblances that this film has to Die Hard (1988, and still a high-water mark in this kind of enterprise) are difficult to overlook.
We know for example that our lone individual (Gerard Butler in this case) will be a bit of an outsider from the corridors of power (in this case due to an unfortunate accident earlier in his career as a Secret Service agent). We know that once he’s at the centre of the storm, he will be initially tested by a misguided authority figure sending his troops on suicidal missions while the aforementioned lone hero is sidelined and only able to offer Cassandra-like prophesies of doom. We know that the villains will be almost preternaturally prepared for all possible outcomes for the majority of the running time (also exceptionally well-funded and organised given their North Korean origins), and will have no compunction in sacrificing their number where required. Plus of course there will be the sentimental sub-plot putting everything at threat, in this case the matter of the President’s son abandoned somewhere in the building. Add to this a good helping of hokey jingoistic nonsense, with some footage of a burning and bullet-ridden Stars and Stripes flag fluttering to the ground (in slow-motion so you can properly appreciate the symbolism), and you have the basic plot.
Of course, nobody goes to action films like this expecting subtle geopolitical analysis, and as someone who has quite enjoyed the occasional retrogressive thrill at the moronic excesses of the action genre, in some ways I prefer it when they just drop any pretence to being up-to-date (my favourite of recent years was Salt  with its unreconstructed Soviet-era baddies). So by having North Korean villains the filmmakers almost approach topicality, though I’d argue they come closer to blatant racism, not to mention leaving plenty of unanswered questions. The terrorists aren’t allied with the North Korean government, but instead are renegade agents (very well-funded for such a poor country) who have infiltrated the South Korean delegation, without somehow becoming known to that government. Their chief demand is the withdrawal of US troops from the 38th parallel, apparently to allow some kind of takeover of the peninsula, which is always just assumed will happen. They are also almost entirely without any individuating character, many dressed in face masks, and all executed very perfunctorily as required; only the leader (played by Rick Yune) has any significant presence in the film but to even call his character one-note would be to do a disservice to monotony.
That said, depth of characterisation is not a noted feature of the action genre, and I can’t deny that there are plenty of visceral pleasures to be had in the propulsive forward momentum of the film. Whatever the failings of the by-numbers script, it’s all directed with a tight clarity of focus which almost manages to efface the essential blandness of its hero (even Jason Statham in the similarly retrogressive, but in most ways superior, Parker has more personality). Moreover, there are around the edges of the film plenty of excellent character actors (Aaron Eckhart as the buff President, Morgan Freeman as the stentorian Speaker of the House, Melissa Leo as the Hilary-like Secretary of Defense, Angela Bassett as someone so underwritten I have no idea who she was actually supposed to be, but Wikipedia tells me she plays the head of the Secret Service), who are all let down only by lacking much in the way of characters to play.
Having then plundered the Hollywood costume box for villains, character actors, explosive special effects and impressive weaponry, the resulting assemblage is certainly passingly entertaining. It just lacks a few of those things that to me make a film really worthwhile, like coherent characters doing coherent things in a way that’s not essentially hateful. And because I am an eternal optimist with an unfortunate soft spot for filmic violence, there’s no reason why an action film shouldn’t be able to achieve such humble objectives.
Director Antoine Fuqua; Writers Creighton Rothenberger and Katrin Benedikt; Cinematographer Conrad W. Hall; Starring Gerard Butler, Aaron Eckhart, Morgan Freeman, Melissa Leo; Length 120 minutes.
Seen at Cineworld Shaftesbury Avenue, London, Sunday 21 April 2013.