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Worth A Look76.47%
Average: 5.88%
Pretty Bad: 11.76%
Total Crap: 5.88%

2 reviews, 5 user ratings

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White House Down
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by Brett Gallman

"A Better Day to Die Hard."
4 stars

Earlier this year, it was a big deal when 80s action staples resurfaced from the woodworks. Well, in a perfect would it would have been a big deal; instead, the best of these efforts (Arnold Schwarzenegger’s return in “The Last Stand”) was largely ignored and gave way to a soulless “Die Hard” entry and a serviceable but forgettable Walter Hill buddy-comedy. Leave it to Roland Emmerich –never one for restraint—to combine the spirit of the latter two in “White House Down” and make up for those earlier missteps.

Yes, that Roland Emmerich, he of disaster porn and occasional Shakespeare revisionist infamy, the guy who’s made a career out of trying to outgun Irwin Allen. At this point, he’s thoroughly embraced the role and even provides a not so sly reminder that you may remember him from previous demolitions like “Independence Day,” which gets a literal shout-out here (he’s never been one for subtlety, either). This time, the threat isn’t extraterrestrial or even foreign but rather a domestic, conspiratorial plot looking to derail the presidency of J.W. Sawyer (Jamie Foxx). When terrorists siege the White House, he’s left without much of a security detail and gets bailed out by John Cale (Channing Tatum), a Capitol Police Officer taking a tour of the grounds with his 11 year old daughter (Joey King), a political junkie who also idolizes the president.

It goes without saying that “White House Down” hews to the “Die Hard” formula more strictly than any film in that series since 1990’s “Die Harder.” Like John McClane before him, Cale is just rough enough around the edges to pass for an everyman, and, while he has some tough guy cred, he’s not exactly cut out for world-class terrorist ass-busting. In fact, the film presents him as kind of a screw-up who isn’t nearly qualified enough to earn a spot in the Secret Service, so this isn’t a superhero mowing down bad guys like McClane has done since the turn of the century. Instead, Cale is just some guy in the wrong place at the wrong time who unwittingly winds up auditioning for the Secret Service gig when he stumbles upon the president and teams up with him to clean house and rescue the hostages within (Cale’s daughter numbers among them, of course).

What follows is one of the better “Die Hard” riffs, right down to the obvious touchstones—Cale has to navigate an elevator shaft, rescue an estranged family member, battle vaguely European villains, and even don a wife-beater to complete the transformation. A scene where Sawyer greets Cale with “Merry Christmas” and a cache of weapons makes it clear that Emmerich (a German, somewhat ironically) is staging a coup of his own and reclaiming the “Die Hard” mantle. The only thing really missing is blood on the wife-beater, as “White House Down” is perhaps a little too sanitized to truly take the torch.

But enough with the “Die Hard” comparisons, especially since the film really thrives on aping Hill’s mismatched partners formula. Tatum and Foxx are charismatic anchors on their own, with the former acting as a hero with conviction. Not only is he driven to save his daughter, but he’s also out to do the right thing as soon as the moment presents itself. Foxx passes nearly every presidential test imaginable: J.W. Sawyer is a leader you’d feel confident in and a guy you’d like to have a beer with. From an action standpoint, he has to defer to Tatum—he can only be so badass, or else the whole thing becomes beyond ridiculous.

Because when the two are paired together, “White House Down” certainly treads right at ridiculous. It’s charged with a relentless, rollicking energy that pairs with its magnetic leads to outrun its lack of ingenuity and wit. For a film that’s channeling “Die Hard” and “48 Hours,” there’s not a whole lot of memorable banter between the two, but they’re a fun duo all the same, especially when they’re let loose. A sequence that finds them doing doughnuts and firing rocket launchers on the White House lawn is a bonkers moment in a thoroughly gonzo movie with very little pretenses despite its harrowing subject matter.

That said, it’s not an insincere farce. Emmerich is nothing if not earnest, even when he’s up to his waste in ashes. His reputation and filmography suggest a glib approach to destruction that belies the fact that he usually has the decency to populate his films with stakes and actual human beings, or at least some stock characters that pass for them. “White House Down” is no different—even as it spirals into absurdity, it does so with the utter conviction that its events matter to the characters within. It’s the sort of film where playing it straight is part of the joke—there’s little doubt that everyone is in on the brainlessness but nobody winks at it.

Basically, it’s what B-movies used to be before they were aware of their B-movie status and began drowning themselves in flippant irony or self-serious grit. Emmerich has a firm grasp on the tone here—“White House Down” is fun and full of levity but nonetheless intense once the action ratchets up to nigh-apocalyptic levels (the film may be largely contained, but it stretches out to a global scale).

He also has an impressive roster at his disposal that pits Tatum and Foxx against some formidable, colorful foes. James Woods is always a welcome sight and even more so when he’s embracing broad, over-the-top villainous roles like he is here. He’s in league with an all-star team of the FBI’s most wanted: Jason Clarke is a scuzzy ex-Marine, while Jimmi Simpson is an amusingly eccentric hacker. Working to thwart their plans is various U.S. government and military personnel, including Maggie Gyllenhaal as a feisty Secret Service agent, Lance Reddick as a general, and Richard Jenkins as the contentious Speaker of the House to round out a strong cast that lends heft to a generally silly affair.

It’s no small feat when King upstages the supporting players as the precocious daughter, a trope that could easily grate but works well here since she’s not relegated to the background as a plot device. Instead, she takes an active role in impeding the terrorists herself; again, this is an aspect that could come dangerously close to edging the film into farcical territory, but it’s believable due to King’s maturity and toughness.

Underpinning the proceedings is a sound script from James Vanderbilt, a screenwriter who has often exhibited a good feel for storytelling structure. “White House Down” is a purely competent effort that seems excessively correct—just about any bit of information (no matter how minute) eventually comes into play and provides payoffs both large and small. It’s not the most graceful of scripts, particularly early on when the White House tour doubles as an expository setup, but it has a clear sense of direction despite its tendency towards convolution. Beyond its immediate and most obvious trappings, the film also functions as a pulpy political thriller that wedges an entire “24” season into two hours. Fans of that show will need no introduction to the 25th Amendment, which is invoked a couple of times here (the uninitiated need not worry, as the script never wastes an opportunity for on-the-nose explanation).

At no point does the film actually veer into surprising territory, as it telegraphs all of its twists by underlining every suspicious act or shady individual. In doing so, it makes the case that surprise isn’t nearly as vital to storytelling as clarity and execution. In this case, the execution is perhaps only exceedingly competent, but it’s also efficient; if nothing else, the script does a good job of getting out of the way and yielding to its director, who crafts a very Roland Emmerich Movie despite the smaller scale. For good measure, he also blows up the Capitol Building (an act that functions as a mere distraction within the film) and unleashes air strikes, missile launches, and vehicular destruction elsewhere to capture his signature sense of awe-inspiring chaos.

Within the White House itself, he stages some sharp beats with gloriously coherent gunfights and brawls, including one that unfolds as the sprinkler system rains down to recall the rain-soaked, testosterone-fuelled climax to “Lethal Weapon.” Emmerich may have made a name for himself in the 90s, but he’s always been an 80s filmmaker at heart in his commitment to excess and clichés. There’s little doubt that he would have found a home in Golan and Globus’s stable had he been lured to Hollywood a decade earlier. If “White House Down” were released 25 years ago, it’d sit alongside the likes of “Invasion U.S.A.” on the shelf, so it feels refreshingly buttoned-down in a modern landscape that could use a little bit more fun. '

For the past fifteen years, Emmerich’s been an easy target and a poster child for big, dumb spectacle, and it seems appropriate that he’s served up a reminder of what popcorn movies can (and perhaps should) be after helping to balloon them to absurd proportions. “White House Down” may be a comparatively small effort for him (anything would be compared to literally destroying the world in "2012"), but it’s filled with bombast and heart.

And, yes, it’s totally the “Armageddon” to “Olympus Has Fallen’s” “Deep Impact” in this year’s White House demolition derby.

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originally posted: 06/28/13 18:38:37
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User Comments

1/10/14 mr.mike At one point a character says "This is ridiculous". Yup. 3 stars
12/14/13 gc The president using a rocket launcher..really? this movie was beyond absurd. 1 stars
11/11/13 action movie fan sloppy direction and obscure story sink this could have been movie 2 stars
6/29/13 Fabiana Entertaining. 4 stars
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  28-Jun-2013 (PG-13)
  DVD: 05-Nov-2013

  06-Sep-2013 (12A)

  DVD: 05-Nov-2013

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