Synopsis: While on a tour of the White House with his young daughter, a Capitol policeman springs into action to save his child and protect the president from a heavily armed group of paramilitary invaders.
Stars: Channing Tatum, Jamie Foxx, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Jason Clarke, Richard Jenkins, James Woods
Director: Roland Emmerich
Running Length: 131 minutes
Trailer Review: Here
TMMM Score: (7/10)
Review: Hollywood’s quirky concept of rival studios producing dueling pictures with the same subject matter has been around for quite some time. There’s the battle of the lava flick with 1997’s Volcano and Dante’s Peak, dueling doomsday comet movies with 1998’s Armageddon and Deep Impact, and most recently two different takes on a fairy princess legend with 2012’s Mirror, Mirror and Snow White and The Huntsman.
One would think that being the first to the theater would signify a clear winner but it’s almost always the case that the second film edges out the competition. That general rule is true again in 2013 which has provided your local cinema with two movies centered around the hostile takeover of 1600 Penn Avenue…better known as The White House.
March’s Olympus Has Fallen was a gratuitously violent and shabbily made film, feeling like it was shot in the same two hallways and offices with the furniture simply re-organized to suggest a new location. It also boasted a forgettable villain and supporting performances that ranged from serviceable to hysterically awful (I’m looking at you Melissa Leo). It felt like an extended version of the television series 24 without any of the surprise that that show seemed to have in spades.
So I was modestly hopeful that White House Down would be a better film…but as more television spots were released and a final too-long trailer was plopped before every summer movie thus far, I started wondering if I’d even make an effort to see the film at all. It didn’t help that there’s something about the subject matter that doesn’t sit quite right with me – maybe it’s because I find The White House to be a true symbol of the United States of America and I’ve not taken any pleasure in seeing it destroyed in films over the years.
Well, I wound up seeing White House Down opening weekend and my first thought was that the movie was better than it had any right to be. What you have here is a true blue crowd pleaser that wisely avoids the missteps of Olympus Has Fallen by keeping things moving at such a rapid pace that you barely have time to catch your breath or let your brain do any dissecting of the fairly ludicrous material.
Though I like a well thought out action flick as much as the next person, there’s something satisfying in just letting a movie like this wash over you without having to worry too much about dots being connected or lessons being learned. This is a hard muscled thrill ride of a film and it’s thanks to the unusually focused efforts of director Roland Emmerich (2012, Independence Day, Universal Soldier) and star Channing Tatum (Side Effects, The Vow, Magic Mike, Haywire, 21 Jump Street) that the movie comes off as pleasing as it does.
With a script from James Vanderbilt (The Amazing Spider-Man) that is really just a re-working of the original Die Hard, White House Down takes a good 40 minutes of its 131 minute length to set-up the characters and plot points that will be used throughout the film. Foreshadowing is a lost art and while most movies have such obvious moments that will be referenced later in the film, there are a few sequences near the end of White House Down that you don’t even realize were set-up in a halfway decent way an hour or more earlier. I respect films that can divert you like that without going for a cheap ploy and White House Down, while derivative, never feels overtly sly in its approach.
The synopsis above is pretty perfect in setting up the goings-on of the film and I’m going to refrain from saying any more, lest I give away some of the turns the movie takes on its journey. There’s no super secret twist awaiting audiences but I did find it admirable Vanderbilt and Emmerich didn’t take the trail most traveled in the midst of all the gunfire and explosions.
A movie of this ilk could easily have recessed into R-rated territory and it’s notable that the PG-13 rating leaves the movie relatively bloodless but doesn’t totally cut itself off at the knees either. People do die but it’s not nearly as excruciating to watch as the deaths in Olympus Has Fallen or even Air Force One, Harrison Ford’s 1997 president in peril film.
Try as I might, I can’t continue to deny that Channing Tatum isn’t coming into his own as a perfectly fine actor and proven action star. Though the script lightly sketches his war veteran turned security detail muscle man, Tatum convincingly makes the character flesh and bone and not just because he’s put in charge of saving the president (Jamie Foxx, Django Unchained) but his estranged 11 year old daughter (Joey King, Oz the Great and Powerful).
Foxx is someone I can either take or leave but his President James Sawyer is a nice role for the Oscar winning actor. There’s not a lot of room for Foxx to do anything but what’s asked of him and his Obama-lite take on the president is nothing to roll your eyes at. This is a president that doesn’t suddenly learn how to use a gun and take on all forms of bad ass-ery…he evolves as the situation changes around him. There’s some nice chemistry between Foxx and Tatum, something that helps the film along on more than one occasion.
Another actor that I sometimes have mixed feelings about is the lone female star, Maggie Gyllenhaal (The Dark Knight, Won’t Back Down), and she wound up being one of the main reasons I liked the film so much. As a confident Secret Service agent that isn’t butch-ed up or written as a doormat, Gyllenhaal is commanding and a solid presence in the war room that becomes the nerve center in helping Tatum and Foxx make it out of the attack alive.
Also turning in fine work as a villainous mercenary is Jason Clarke (Zero Dark Thirty, The Great Gatsby, Lawless), Speaker of the House Richard Jenkins (Jack Reacher), and James Woods as the head of Secret Service detail assigned to protect the president. Everyone else is merely filler comprised of character actors that probably bring their own military uniforms to the set with them.
Even with several well staged action sequences that take Tatum and Foxx on a tour of the White House grounds, the movie does start to feel the weight of its mission about 90 minutes in. It’s yet another case of people making it out of danger but turning around and going back in to save someone the audience knows they shouldn’t. The perfunctory ending is rushed…almost as if the last day of shooting arrived and the final ten pages were crammed into one.
For my money, the battle of the Presidential Palace has been won by White House Down thanks to some skilled work by players operating with a hefty budget and A-List talent. It’s easy to see why the film could be written off quickly by audiences that didn’t care for Olympus Has Fallen but I’d suggest you give this one a go if you’re in the mood for something that goes down relatively easy with a nicely chiseled punch.