White House Down and this year’s other action film set in our nation’s capital, Olympus Has Fallen, were both pitched as “Die Hard in the White House.” But while Olympus took that premise and put its own hyper-violent jingoistic spin on it, this movie seems content to operate in John McClane’s shadow without bringing the same freshness that made John McTiernan’s 1988 film an action masterpiece. Roland Emmerich, the filmmaker who already obliterated the President’s residence on film in Independence Day, returns behind the camera here and crafts a goofy and lighthearted throwback to 90s action flicks that works as totally dumb summer fun.
Channing Tatum plays John Cale, a veteran working a protection detail for the Speaker of the House (Richard Jenkins). Cale’s estranged 11-year-old daughter Emily (Joey King) is obsessed with politics and loves the current President (Jamie Foxx), so when Cale gets the chance to interview for a position on the Secret Service, he brings her along to the White House to score some brownie points. He doesn’t get the gig, but before they leave, he takes Emily on a tour of the White House – and that’s when the building is attacked from the inside, eventually leaving Cale as the only one left to protect the President.
Though Emmerich is mostly known for the “disaster porn” he’s directed in recent years, White House Down is downright reserved when compared to 2012 and The Day After Tomorrow. After the endless cacophony surrounding the city-wide destruction in Man of Steel, it’s refreshing to know that people shouldn’t have much to complain about here; almost all of the action takes place in the White House and doesn’t overflow into the D.C. streets. But its contained nature only heightens the comparison with the original Die Hard, a film from which White House Down shamelessly steals. Tatum’s Cale talks to himself in the same sardonic way in which Bruce Willis’ John McClane muttered under his breath, and though Tatum has charisma and star power of his own, it’s tough to shake the feeling that this really does just try to recapture the formula and change the location.
Foxx and Tatum are charming and competent, but their work won’t earn them the top slot on any “best buddy movie” lists. The one thing this movie has over Olympus Has Fallen is the quality of its supporting cast, which includes people like Maggie Gyllenhaal (as a Secret Service liason), James Woods (hmm…wonder who he could be?), Jason Clarke (a sneering contract killer), Lance Reddick (a no-nonsense general), and Jimmi Simpson (who plays a hacker and owes his entire performance to Clarence Gilyard’s work in Die Hard). The action is often ridiculous but always well-staged; this is the kind of movie in which Tatum leaps over couches and behind tables to dodge machine gun fire – and this happens four or five different times. It’s also a film in which Foxx (playing the President, remember) fires a rocket launcher out of the back window of Ground Force One, a bulletproof SUV that Tatum drives during a chase sequence on the White House lawn. Idiotic, but pretty fun nonetheless.
Films like this were more prevalent about fifteen years ago (Air Force One and The Rock come to mind), but this one is updated with modern political undertones. Foxx’s President is working toward peace in the Middle East, but that ruffles the feathers of the faceless fat cats who profit off the expenses of perpetual war. It’s certainly not rocket science, but it’ll do for the plot of a broad summer actioner. If anything, it made me want to see a film that reunites Tatum and Foxx in a pure buddy cop comedy, since this one grazes the touchstones of that subgenre but never gives them enough time to establish a truly memorable rapport. White House Down probably won’t be your favorite movie of the summer, but it’s executed well enough that it won’t disappoint you, either. Until next time…
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