A White House under attack? Channing Tatum in Bruce Willis's old Die Hard wife beater?? America actually elected Jamie Foxx to the presidency??? You must have burning questions about Roland Emmerich's old-school (by which I mean, early '90s) summer blockbuster White House Down and we've got the answers.
So in White House Down, a team of rogue terrorists seizes control of the White House and holds the President and other elected officials at gunpoint, while a lone patriot skulks around the grounds, taking the bad guys out one by one. Am I crazy or did I already see this movie back in March?
No, the movie you saw in March was called Olympus Has Fallen. But otherwise, yes, both movies are fairly similar in terms of set-up. Once again, the presidential residence is attacked and quickly conquered by a squad of well-armed, well-funded desperadoes and the future of the nation rests on the absurdly buff soldiers of one highly-skilled, but personal problem-plagued ex-soldier. Several of the action set-pieces are also beat-for-beat similar, like an attempted military aerial attack on the White House that's thwarted by ground-to-air missiles the terrorists have placed on the roof. But in terms of tone, the two films couldn't be more different. Where Olympus tried to play its premise seriously -- so seriously that it came across as seriously vile, particularly after the umpteenth government employee was executed at point-blank range with their blood and brains spewing all over the ground -- White House Down is as much a comic book fantasy as something like The Avengers. Yes, endless rounds of bullets are fired and numerous people die, but it's all fairly bloodless and weightless. It's the only movie I can think of where the hostile takeover of the American government actually seems like... well, fun.
What's the nationality of the terrorists attacking us this time? North Koreans, again? Russians? Arabs? Dothraki?
Nope, the threat is more homegrown here with our merry band of terrorist brothers populated by white supremacists (Kevin Rankin), disgruntled hackers (Jimmi Simpson) and a former covert ops agent (Jason Clarke) smarting from extended stints as POWs. There are also a couple of moles inside the government who help them break through the White House doors, moles who are motivated by President Sawyer's (Foxx) decision to withdraw all troops from the Middle East, effectively shutting down the various corporate war profiteers whose bottom line depends on a continued military presence in the region. If I'm being honest, the racist Southerners and crazy wingnuts on display here are as stereotypical as the bloodthirsty North Koreans who attacked the White House in Olympus Has Fallen. But again, it all comes back to tone; the lack of any humor in that movie made the cartoonishness of the foreign occupiers seem mean-spirited and ugly. The heroes and villains in Emmerich's movies are both equally goofy, so there's rarely any risk of offense. Unless you hail from outer space and find Independence Day's depiction of destruction-minded alien invaders as being horribly prejudiced.
That really is John McClane's wife beater that Channing Tatum is wearing, right? He stole the thing from Planet Hollywood?
Oh, come on. Channing Tatum would never steal anything. He doesn't have to. As 30 Rock taught us, when you're that good looking, you just have to ask for stuff and the world gives it to you. But to your point, yes, even though his character is named John Cale -- a D.C. area cop with dreams of joining the Secret Service -- he's essentially playing John McClane. Both men hail from working class backgrounds and have a sarcastic wit and scruffy know-how to make up for their lack of social polish. I'm not sure that Tatum could have pulled off this role a few years ago, but his detour into comedy with 21 Jump Street as well as his three-movie collaboration with Steven Soderbergh has had a profound impact on him as an actor. He's loose and nimble here in a way he never was in early star vehicles like Fighting and the first G.I. Joe picture. (Taking a bullet to get out of that franchise was the next best career choice he made after the Jump Street/Magic Mike double-header.) One of the things that hasn't been hyped in the movie's trailers so much is the comic rapport he shares with his co-star, Foxx, which is very much in the vein of the Bruce Willis/Reginald VelJohnson relationship established in Die Hard. Foxx may be playing the President, but the dynamic between him and Tatum is pure buddy cop, which I guess makes it only appropriate that White House Down is opening opposite The Heat this weekend.
So you're saying that Foxx spends the whole movie standing around talking to Tatum on a radio?
Oh no, President Sawyer definitely gets in on the action, throwing a few punches and play with guns -- specifically a rocket launcher -- as well. (The person-on-the-phone role is instead filled by Maggie Gyllenhaal, whose bored gaze indicates that she's well aware just how thankless this part is.) Remember how I mentioned how White House Down is basically a comic book movie? Well, Sawyer is a comic book version of President Obama, with a three-piece suit doubling as his spandex uniform. (He even trades in his standard issue loafers at one point for a pair of Flash-like sneakers, although they don't similarly allow him to run faster than the speed of light.) As played by Foxx, Sawyer's got Obama's humble background and effortless cool, but can snap instantly into action mode when the occasion demands it. Cale is unquestionably the Superman of their two-man Justice League (Richard Donner's version, not Zack Snyder's), but Sawyer is a capable... um, Green Arrow? Mister Miracle? I dunno... some powerless dude who is good in a fight.
Best action sequence -- go!
Probably the car chase that takes place entirely on the White House lawn. One of the many problems that Olympus Has Fallen had was that it quickly ran out of ways to use the confined setting of the White House, so we wound up with lots of scenes of Gerard Butler walking through an endless series of hallways occasionally stopping to shoot at bad guys. Emmerich does a much better job opening up the set-pieces without ever leaving the grounds. The car chase is the best example of this, but White House Down also allows the action to spill over into the presidential pool house, various subbasements and a dumbwaiter shaft. Even the latter-day Die Hard installments were never really able to replicate the claustrophobic one-setting location of the first movie.
So this really is the second coming of Die Hard, huh?
Well, Emmerich would sure like you to think so. And it's certainly a better Die Hard movie than this year's actual Die Hard movie, A Good Day to Die Hard. But as much fun as I had with White House Down, I'm not about to award it the same exalted status as John McTiernan's oft-imitated 1988 classic. For one thing, like too many of Emmerich's films, White House overstays its welcome by a good half-hour, building to two climaxes when one would suffice. And try as he might, Clarke's bad guy (plus the secret mole whose identity I won't reveal, even though it couldn't be more obvious) isn't a villain on the level of Alan Rickman's immortal Hans Gruber And even though the movie's good humor is welcome compared to Olympus Has Fallen, it's missing the edge of danger that permeates Die Hard or, for that matter, parts of The Avengers. If Die Hard was a hearty beer, White House Down is a milkshake -- sugary and enjoyable, but in the end pretty vanilla.
Get showtimes and tickets for this movie from Fandango.