I did not catch Olympus Has Fallen, the dueling precursor to White House Down. Perhaps because Olympus seemed to take itself very seriously, whereas a film starring Jamie Foxx as the President of the United States promised a little more fun. I was wrong about Jamie Foxx, as the actor turns in a remarkably low-key performance as President Sawyer; the film, however, is still quite fun.
We can call it a pleasant surprise. Roland Emmerich’s past films have reeked of equal parts treacle and CG-saturation. 1996’s Independence Day, for all of its grand spectacle, is a poorly-written and manipulative monster of a film. 1998’s Godzilla was a poorly-written film about a monster. And the less said of 2009’s 2012 the better. That blunt film turned CG and crummy dialogue into a blunt instrument that paralyzed the nation for a brief, insidious time in cinema history. Roland Emmerich and Michael Bay have much in common, when comparing their love of explosions and more explosions, but Emmerich has consistently proved that, whatever his artistic failings, he at least knows how to frame a shot. There is no shaky cam in the man’s repertoire and whenever he sets up an action scene it is always very clear what is getting thrashed and by whom (we cannot say as much for Mr. Bay).
White House Down begins with much greater reserve and unfolds with much greater wit than Emmerich’s previous features, and what is most gratifying to hear and see is our main cast, who are given at least a modicum of characterization before we proceed with the pyrotechnics. It has been said that WHD is basically Die Hard in the White House and yes that’s true (just as Speed was Die Hard on a bus and Air Force One was Die Hard on a plane), but it puts the latest iteration of Die Hard to shame with its strong relationships and interplay. A Good Day to Die Hard suffered the twin flaws of being incompetently directed and terribly written, with characters we didn’t know, didn’t understand, and didn’t care about. White House Down does not find itself on equal footing with John McClane’s original adventure, but it is more fun than his last three.
We are introduced to John Kale (Channing Tatum), a man with several commitment issues in his past but three tours of Afghanistan under his belt and a severe dedication to being a better father to his eleven-year-old daughter Emily (Joey King). Emily is about as precocious as you’d expect from this type of film but she does have her narrative uses and when she eventually becomes the hostage of an insurgent plot to capture the White House, John will stop at nothing to save her, the President, and the American way.
That’s a basic summation of the plot, though the film is much less jingoistic than your typical Bay (or even Emmerich) film. This is a strictly internecine struggle, of Americans vs. Americans, and Emmerich does not overdo the patriotism on the level of Bill Pullman’s absurd Independence Day speech. Instead there is a welcome amount of humor about our government and its politics, with the patriotism and lofty subject of real war taking a backseat to the action.
The first two acts hold some great action moments, though the film never gets better than its methodical first. The maneuvering of the terrorists is a slow buildup to the capitol’s takeover, yet not a single scene passes without momentum. The suspense is layered on scene after scene while we learn who John is and what the President’s security detail is like. And when all hell breaks loose, the tension never lets up. There are moments that are positively thrilling.
Unfortunately, the tightly wound plot unravels in its third act. What begins as a solid keep-the-President-alive-and-save-the-hostages story swiftly balloons into a stop-the-whole-planet-from-bombing-us-to-WW3 muddle, with our large cast of characters sort of bouncing up against this rubbery balderdash and landing as best they can, with unflattering results. It’s a shame because it bloats an otherwise robust actioneer, which will prevent it from becoming a classic. Also disappointing is Emmerich’s ability to shoot the hand-to-hand fights. The gunplay and automotive mayhem the director has down pat but for a three-time Afghanistan veteran John Kale seldom manages anything more spectacular than a bear hug.
Weak ending aside, overall it’s a solid action entertainment. If you have some cash and summer to burn, lace up your Jordans and get White House Down.
White House Down (2013)
Directed by Roland Emmerich
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