Friday, June 28, 2013

White House Down

It has been a while since there were dueling movies in Hollywood. You know, when there are two similarly themed flicks released within a few months of each other? We’ve had Dante’s Peak and Volcano, Deep Impact and Armageddon, Antz and A Bug’s Life or even Tombstone and Wyatt Earp. Crap, I just realized that last year we did have one – Mirror Mirror and Snow White and the Huntsman. I’ll just retract my earlier statement and say that it’s been a somewhat uncommon occurrence since the mid-to-late 90s.

So here we are in 2013. Back in March the Washington D.C. under siege action thriller Olympus Has Fallen was released, and a mere three months later the virtually identically titled and plotted White House Down is hitting theaters. How does this fare against the competition?
Cale (Channing Tatum), a private security officer for the Speaker of the House (Richard Jenkins), takes his daughter on a tour of the White House just as terrorists decide to take over. When she is captured by their leader Stenz (Jason Clarke) and traitorous Secret Service officer Walker (James Woods), Cale teams up with the President (Jamie Foxx) to stop them from carrying out their plan and save his child.

First off, this film is cheesy as all hell. It’s corny, idiotic and sometimes downright stupid. But that’s all part of the fun of it. It doesn’t take itself too seriously like Olympus Has Fallen, and therefore it was more enjoyable in my eyes. White House Down is not a great movie by any means. Shit, it’s not even good. When it comes to pure summer popcorn escapist fare this is exactly what I expect to see when I plop down my $12 for a ticket. I just want to be entertained and this flick did just that.
The cast is top notch. Some can claim that Olympus Has Fallen did as well, but here the actors seem to know that the movie they are performing in is ridiculous and just go with it. Channing Tatum is awesome as the hero, sort of a mash-up of John McClane and Jason Statham. He actually manages to give his character a personality (unlike in G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra) and I enjoyed watching him taking out wave upon wave of bad guys. He won’t win a Golden Globe for his skills, but he’s definitely not as bad as he usually is here. The fact that he does the majority of his own stunts is impressive as well. Jamie Foxx is likeable and fun as well as President Sawyer, a combination of Barack Obama’s cool and hip exterior with a little bit of Django thrown in there for attitude. He shares a great chemistry with Tatum and when the two of them are on-screen together the movie really hits its high points.

The casting of James Woods in a movie like this was a bit of a surprise since I haven’t seen him in anything in years (not since his TV show Shark went off the air in 2008) and action movies aren’t exactly what he’s known for. Regardless, he hams it up incredibly well as the main villain and, like General Zod in Man of Steel, has a method behind his madness that puts his motives in a gray area that is somewhat sympathetic (the scene when his wife learns of his plot is probably one of the best moments in any Roland Emmerich film). Jason Clarke (Zero Dark Thirty, Death Race) as his right hand man is a nice contrast against Tatum. He goes a little overboard with the screaming now and then but for the most part he plays a decent physical adversary.
Maggie Gyllenhaal is decent, but really has nothing to do but look concerned and worried. She can’t seem to keep the smirk off her face during the hokier moments (“The President wants to do ‘the thing’”) and for some reason I got the feeling that she was just cashing a check. She has some good moments though (the Capitol building explosion). Richard Jenkins, Jimmi Simpson, Lance Reddick, Matt Craven, Nicolas Wight and Joey King all perform above what a movie like this would normally call for. However, Rachelle Lefevre as Cole’s ex-wife is downright awful. He daughter is all over the news as a hostage and not once does she look like she gives a shit.

The script by James Vanderbilt (The Amazing Spider-Man, Zodiac, The Rundown, The Losers) is beyond ludicrous at times (the car chase across the White House front lawn is one of the goofiest things I’ve seen all summer) and filled to the brim with every cliché in the book, but I’m of a mind to say that he was told to just spin a tale that is fast and fun with reality checking in only occasionally. He does tend to go over the top with the sentimental stuff (anything involving Cole’s daughter), it’s slow going from the start because the main plot doesn’t kick in until 45 minutes into the movie, events are tied up to neatly, some of the humor is lame (“How are you still awake?” – “Caffeine and patriotism.”) and some of the tactics on display are incredibly suspect (everyone seems to love the White House’s basement). Some of the characters are well drawn, the action scenes are plentiful and the a lot of the happenings are fun as well as somewhat disturbing (seeing the Capitol building collapse reminded me of 9/11 imagery). Another aspect I thought was interesting and ballsy was that the majority of the villains were white supremacists and want the President dead because he’s African American. Funnily enough Vanderbilt’s script covers a lot of the same ground as Olympus Has Fallen. However, this was in production long before that film was even in the scripting stage. The end product showed its rushed origins and it suffered immensely due to it. Thankfully that’s not the case here.
Director Roland Emmerich is extremely hit or miss with me. His older movies like Stargate and The Patriot I still find entertaining, but some like Independence Day have definitely soured over the years. His more recent films (2012, 10,000 BC, The Day After Tomorrow) I cannot stand for the most part due to how badly written they were. The fact that he didn’t go crazy with the overall scope of the story makes this one of his most restrained offerings in decades. You can tell that he wanted to go small and stay small instead of destroying as much property as he possibly could as usual. Sure some D.C. landmarks get effed in the A, but that’s to be expected. Emmerich has always excelled in his direction of action and here is no different. We get plenty of cool shootouts, fist fights and aerial shenanigans. Everything makes sense due to some good editing and choreography, and thankfully the entire film takes place during the daytime unlike Olympus Has Fallen (scenes were so dark I couldn’t see anything). He manages to wring a decent performance out of Tatum, as I mentioned earlier as well. His problem, as it usually is, that he loves to fill his movies with pointless events (the “Thing”), redundant scenes and lots of dumb humor (“Get your hands off my Jordans!”). His editor sure can put together a nifty car chase, but trimming the fat from the rest of the movie must be a no-no. This could have easily clocked in at under two hours, but it is needlessly stretched out to nearly two and a half. Sometimes brevity can be your friend, which is a lesson Mr. Emmerich has yet to learn.

When the credits rolled I realized that I had watched what amounted to 75% of repeated material from Olympus Has Fallen. But I was okay with it. Why? Because this is what I was expecting to see back in March – an entertaining movie. While this is definitely not a flick I would call “good”, it’s exactly what it set out to be and doesn’t pretend to be anything but. White House Down is too long, dumb and hokey, but it’s also one of the more enjoyable movies I’ve seen this summer. And its 150% better than its doppelganger.
Let’s just see how well it holds up fifteen years down the line. Time was not kind to ID4.

3.5 out of 5

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