There’s a notable moment in “Olympus Has Fallen,” director Antoine Fuqua’s action thriller that arrives in theaters Friday: a desecrated American flag is discarded from atop the White House by North Korean terrorists and falls, in slow-motion, to the ground as dirge-like music plays in the background.
It’s the type of scene — bold to his fans, cringe-worthy to his critics — that Fuqua has used in nearly all of his films.
“I wanted to create an exciting movie, but give it these small moments of truth,” the director said, noting that he sought to show America’s post-9/11 vulnerability.
Fuqua’s statement of purpose is, perhaps, also a fitting description of his career. Still best known for the 2001 police drama “Training Day,” the helmer, 47, has fashioned a filmography that is decidedly commercial. But he also seeks to convey a universally human tension, often centered on a man attempting to do right in the face of trying and violent circumstances. It’s something Fuqua has covered in movies ranging from “Training Day” to 2003 Navy SEAL rescue tale “Tears of the Sun” to the 2007 conspiracy thriller “Shooter.”
That theme is once again at the heart of “Olympus.”
The movie isn’t exactly a likely choice for a director known for streetwise realism. It involves--wait for it--North Korean terrorists wreaking destruction across metro D.C. as they take over the White House, all in an attempt to spark a war in their home region. That prompts Mike Banning (Gerard Butler), a former Secret Service agent who was removed from his position after a tragedy involving the president (Aaron Eckhart), to brave storms of gunfire as he crosses into 1600 Pennsylvania Ave., where he of course must single-handedly fight off dozens of terrorists to save the president, the president’s son and, as it turns out, the free world itself. If you’ve ever imagined “Rambo” and “Die Hard” getting together with a Tom Clancy conspiracy premise, you probably have a sense of “Olympus Has Fallen.”
But amid the pyrotechnics, Fuqua says, is a more delicate subject: that of a guilt-ridden man trying to atone for his mistakes.
“There’s a lot of spectacle in this film because that’s what much of the audience wants to see,” said Fuqua as he flipped through scenes in a Los Angeles editing suite a few weeks ago. “But this is also a movie about wanting to get a second chance and the universe saying: ‘You’re going to have to earn it.’”
A few years ago, Fuqua had no intention of making a movie like this.
After finishing the sprawling cop tale “Brooklyn’s Finest” in 2008, Fuqua wanted to get back to work. But after mixed reviews at the Sundance Film Festival and several distribution delays, “Brooklyn’s” put him in a bit of director limbo. (That movie’s Fuqua moment came at the end, when Richard Gere’s cop, having bravely survived a bloody shootout, goes fishing on a pastoral lake only to shoot himself in the head.)
It wasn’t like the director couldn’t get a meeting; for a spell the Pittsburgh native seemed to be involved in every third movie. There was a Christian Bale revenge drama. An Eminem-starring boxing movie. A Tupac Shakur biopic. And his long-running quest for a film about Pablo Escobar. But none of them, at least so far, have panned out.
“My wife kept telling me, ‘You really have to do something to get out of the house,’” he recalled of his spouse, the actress Lela Rochon. “She also said, ‘You should do a franchise picture.’ And I kept telling her, ‘I don’t know how to do that.’”
Then last spring Fuqua received a call from the producer Avi Lerner. Lerner was eager to make a White House movie with Butler and needed someone with both filmmaking chops and scheduling flexibility — after all, the film would need to be shot, edited and ready in less than a year so it could beat a rival movie from Sony Pictures.
Butler, who knew Fuqua from a previous development project, pushed the director to take the gig. “What you’re never going to get with Antoine,” the actor said, “is run of the mill. He knows the power of a single image and how it can rip your heart out.” (In this film, Butler said, that image was a tie of sorts between the flag scene and a bust of Abraham Lincoln being smashed over the head of a North Korean terrorist.)
Film executive Peter Schlessel, whose FilmDistrict is releasing “Olympus,” sounded a similar note. Fuqua, he said, is “a step up as a filmmaker from what most of these genre movies usually get. He brings a level of intensity, a no-joke kind of sensibility.”
Indeed, the filmmaker has a reputation for a strong will. (He says he’d like to have a producing partner but has never found one with whom he felt comfortable. A producer who knows and admires him said the director benefits from a strong personality on set who can help him distinguish between vision and folly.)
But his stubborn streak can also result in an openness to go where few directors will — sometimes literally, like when he shot for weeks in the projects on “Brooklyn’s Finest.” The director cites as an influence his film editor Conrad Buff, whom he quotes as saying “there are no straight lines in nature” and who inspires him to insert moments some might think shaggy.
There is another such scene in “Olympus"--the implosion of the Washington Monument after an enemy plane has attacked it. Given the circumstances and the geometry — a tall structure is reduced to rubble — it’s impossible not to think, unexpectedly and uncomfortably, about the World Trade Center while watching it.
“It’s a sense of where we are after 9/11,” Fuqua said, then added. “I want people to feel that.”