The opening of the narrative works quickly to off a female character, knowing that there's nothing like dropping a dead woman on the screen to provide any males nearby with wounds, motivation, and depth. In this case, though, the males so provided are two: U.S. President Benjamin Asher (Aaron Eckhart) and Secret Service tough dude Mike Banning (Gerard Butler). Other than the tragedy that unites them and a supposedly irresistible regular guy machismo, neither of them has any particular character to speak of.
Once we have established the transcendental rectitude and sympathy of the most powerful man on earth, we can get down to hating the foreigners. Again, this is accomplished in the expected manner. Inevitably and repulsively, the film has us watch the destruction of the Washington Monument in a scene that deliberately evokes the World Trade Center collapse. More subtly, it runs the old War of the Worlds dodge, unleashing our imperial excesses upon ourselves. Long set pieces focus on airborne attackers with superior technology mowing down U.S. civilians. The antagonist is North Korea, not Afghanistan, but surely the inspiration here, at least semiconsciously, is our drone-strike program. Studiously avoiding any reference to America's ongoing use of terror bombing, we imagine ourselves as victims of our own aggression, ever innocent and powerless, and ever newly justified in violence.
The controlling paranoid fantasy here is, again, that North Korea is somehow our technological and military superior. In the real world, North Korea is nearly as incompetent as its leader is insane; it can barely fire a rocket, much less orchestrate a massively complicated, multi-stage, higher-than-high-tech (no box cutters here) split-second operation deep in the American homeland. But whatever. The main point is to somehow—anyhow—set up that Die Hard in the White House pitch, so that we can access the vast portion of the American cowboy hindbrain that spasms when we see a lone hardass struggling against the odds.
Gerard Butler is no Bruce Willis, and his character has none of John McClane's scrappy vulnerability or cleverness. Instead, the Special Forces trained Banning is simply uber-competent (because... he's America!) and unflinchingly brutal. The film is pretty much an unbroken series of low points, but if I had to pick the absolute worst scene, I would have to go with the one where Banning gleefully tortures two captured terrorists. There's no Zero Dark Thirty shilly-shallying here, no oh-water-boarding-is-just-enhanced-interrogation, or does-torture-work-or-doesn't-it. Our hero stabs one guy in the throat to get the other one to talk, then stabs the remaining fellow in the knee, all the while boasting about how the US has trained him in information-extraction techniques. The audience reaction in my theater was jubilant; people gasped and laughed as Banning stabbed the guy in the throat and then, as the interrogation got bloodier, they broke into spontaneous applause. Torture—it has to work! It's too fun not to.