There's a notable moment in "Olympus Has Fallen," director Antoine Fuqua's action thriller: a slow-motion shot of a desecrated American flag discarded from atop the White House by North Korean terrorists as dirgelike 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 almost 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 is, perhaps, also a fitting description of his career. Still best known for the 2001 police drama "Training Day," Fuqua, 47, has fashioned a filmography that is decidedly commercial. But it also seeks to convey a universally human tension, often centered on men attempting to do right in the face of trying, violent circumstances, as he has in movies including the 2003 Navy SEAL rescue tale "Tears of the Sun" and the 2007 conspiracy thriller "Shooter."

That theme is once again at the heart of "Olympus." The movie isn't a likely choice for a director known for streetwise realism. It involves North Korean terrorists wreaking destruction across metro D.C. as they take over the White House in an attempt to spark a war in their home region.


Advertisement

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 to get inside 1600 Pennsylvania Ave., where he must single-handedly fight off dozens of terrorists to save the president, his son and, as it turns out, the free world.

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," Fuqua said 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" had put him in a bit of director limbo.

It wasn't like he couldn't get a meeting; for a spell, the Pittsburgh, Pa., 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 panned out.

"My wife kept telling me, 'You really have to do something to get out of the house,'" he recalled of his spouse, actress Lela Rochon, with whom he lives in L.A. with the couple's four children. "She also said, 'You should do a franchise picture.' And I kept telling her, 'I don't know how to do that.' "

But this past spring Fuqua received a call from producer Avi Lerner, who was eager to make a White House movie with Butler. Lerner needed someone immediately available -- the film would need to be shot, edited and ready in less than a year so he could beat a rival film from Sony Pictures.

Butler, who knew Fuqua from a previous project, gave a further push. "What you're never going to get with Antoine is run of the mill," the actor said. "He knows the power of a single image and how it can rip your heart out."

Film executive Peter Schlessel, whose FilmDistrict is releasing "Olympus," said that Fuqua 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.

But that stubborn streak can also result in an openness to go where few directors will -- 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." It entails the implosion of the Washington Monument after an enemy plane attacks it. Given the circumstances and the geometry -- a tall structure reduced to rubble -- it's impossible not to think, uncomfortably, about the World Trade Center.

"It's a sense of where we are after 9/11," Fuqua said. "I want people to feel that."