Gerard Butler aces it in a rip-roaring siege movie with a savage political undercurrent.
It happened. We don't know how, but it happened. Gerard Butler, a career critical whipping-boy whose repeated presence in big-budget American movies has started to come across like he's being aggressively foisted on the public like some Hollywood tax, has finally starred in a decent movie. And not just a decent movie, but a pretty darn good movie. And what's more, he's pretty darn good in it too.
Making the recent Die Hard sequel look even more slipshod and out-of-touch than it actually was, Antoine Fuqua delivers a sly and prescient satire on the folly of American patriotism which is encased in a blustering action movie shell. It's a film that subverts expectations as much as it delivers upon them.
The setup is right out of Red Dawn (MK 2), as a North Korean tearaway faction takes just 13 short minutes to occupy the White House by force. There's no foreplay here: as soon as the head terrorist has wheedled his way into the inner sanctum of America's most secure building, his never-say-die cadre of skull-masked goons join him in a cavalcade of high-powered machine-gun fire and tourist-scaring explosions.
Mike Banning (Butler) is the President's (Aaron Eckhart) ex-chief of security, busted down to pushing pencils at the treasury following a freak road accident on an icy byway. His forced exclusion – for emotional more than professional purposes – places him in the perfect position to bring America back into the game lest the evil Koreans coerce US occupying forces to withdraw from the DMZ and open the floodgates to a potential nuclear Armageddon.
Now if the casting of the corporate slimeball from The Company Of Men as the US President isn't enough to make you think that Fuqua isn't taking this material entirely seriously, then the revelation that Potus apparently also keeps a handgun in his desk drawer of the Oval Office will be. But these are very subtle digs, so much so that you could choose to ignore them entirely and just enjoy the fireworks.
While the Koreans appear to be democracy-hating psychopaths in frameless glasses and tight-fitting waistcoats, the irony soon transpires that they are whupping their foes with American-made military hardware. In the film's most potent scene, the Chief of Staff of the US Army bullishly sanctions a helicopter rescue mission despite being told that the Koreans have obtained high-tech American anti-air artillery. The SEAL team are duly blown to smithereens.
But as much as the film asks us to root for Banning as he sashays down darkened, bullet-riddled corridors and administers spine-snapping punishment to those anonymous shrieking henchmen who have dared to juggle with western liberty, it also calls into question the absurdity of romantic hero worship and the blind idolising of political and historical totems.
The film also offers an underhand take on nuclear proliferation – and that the stockpiling of atomic weapons on home turf can be as much a means of auto-destruction as a symbolic deterrent to others. Again, it does all this within the spray-on tight confines of a template genre thriller that plays like a big budget Jack Ryan movie more than it does an egregious (and cynical) Roland Emmerich blast-'em-up. What's more, the total dearth of glib catchphrases and smarmy wisecracks is a complete godsend.
The previous point perhaps taps in to why Butler finally makes his dramatic breakthrough with this movie. It's not as if he has much to do beyond shooting guns and growling military codewords into a walkie-talkie, but his restraint is admirable and, in his relationship with the president's young son, he manages to make big emotional in-roads with a very small amount of screen time. So Gerry, ya finally did it.
Oh dearie me, the White House is under attack (with Gerard Butler).
A taught, tight disaster movie with nourishing political undertones.
Butler hardly knocks it out of the park, but he steals the film. And what a film...