Movie Review: “White House Down”

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At this point in his career, “White House Down” director Roland Emmerich is

Channing Tatum holds Jamie Foxx's hand in "White House Down"

“Follow me, Mr. President. No, you’re completely safe in this crowd full of rowdy civillians.”

right up there with Mother Nature herself in terms of total destructive force.

In film after film, the German-born Emmerich has made a habit of leveling iconic American structures and landmarks in spectacular fashion. Maybe the FBI, the CIA and the Department of Homeland Security should start to keep an eye on this guy.

Back in 1996, alien invaders blasted a giant ray gun directly at the White House, the Empire State Building, and basically every free-standing building on the entire planet in “Independence Day.”

He followed that up in 1998 with the grossly expensive, but not-so-high grossing “Godzilla” and turned the big lizard loose – with New York City the target once again.

In 2004 and 2009, he decided to go with annihilation on a global-scale and demolish any and every building that was ever constructed (even the Vatican wasn’t safe, for you-know-who’s sake) in “The Day After Tomorrow” and “2012,” respectively.

Now it’s the year 2013 (we made it past 2012 and the Mayan calendar apocalypse… yaaaay!) and Emmerich has come full circle and is going after Washington DC again – in typical, summer popcorn flick flair – with “White House Down.”

However, what makes this film different from all the rest of his super-solemn depictions of death and devastation is the fact that Emmerich now seems to be self-aware of how ridiculous some of his previous films have been. In fact, very early on, an anal-retentive tour guide jokingly explains to his tour group about how a particular section of the White House was made famous during “that scene in Independence Day.”

That has always been the biggest problem that these Roland Emmerich projects have faced – they just take themselves so damn seriously. Granted, “Independence Day” and Godzilla” both had their moments of levity amongst the rubble, but most of this was due to the casting of such comedic stars (and stars that can be funny if they have to be) as Will Smith, Matthew Broderick and Jeff Goldblum.

They were able to make light of the situation at-hand, but still keep the situation’s heavy-handedness intact. As for the rest of the films that were mentioned above, let’s just say that their lack of humor gave them a level of unintentional absurdity that ultimately turned them corny and clichéd.

I’m delighted to say that “White House Down” is Emmerich’s best film since “Independence Day” and it’s because of a familiar, but somewhat lost as of late, reason: an out of this world (pun very much intended)  cast.

Don’t get me wrong, the storyline is also pretty decent. That worldwide destructive vibe that we’ve come to know and (sometimes) love from Emmerich’s usual endeavors is traded in for a more localized sense of ruin. At least he kept it to one building this time. Well, he also blew up the Capitol, but “Capitol Down” just didn’t have the same gravity to it. Basically, things have gone from Armageddon to good old-fashioned terrorism. Not to spoil anything, but things may-or-may-not get to that global level EVENTUALLY, but what do you expect when a group of radicals decide to take over the White House and kidnap the President of the United States.

Speaking of Mr. President, this brings me the cast of the film. The leader of the free world has been played by so many great (and some not-so-great) actors AND actresses in the past. Some of these examples of great performances regarding the U.S. President are that of the fictitious variety and in “White House Down” one of the more unforgettable “fake” presidential personas is created. Thus, President James Sawyer is brought to life by Jamie Foxx.

However, I can’t exactly say that all of the attributes of President Sawyer are not inspired by a specific real-life subject – right down to some of his more shameful bad habits. In one of the more stressful moments for President Sawyer, Foxx proceeds to stuff his face full of a specific chewing gum used for just such moments. It’s one of those wink-wink moments that pops up quite often during the films.

Of course, a great deal of the light-hearted mood of the film could be attributed to its screenwriter, James Vanderbilt (who wrote the screenplay for “The Amazing Spider-Man” and the waaaay too underappreciated 2003 action flick, “The Rundown”) and not to Emmerich. In fact, this is the only title out of all the aforementioned films that Emmerich has not penned the screenplay for. This might be the reason that a great deal of the rah-rah speeches and sappy sentimentality is left out – and that is a good… no… scratch that…GREAT thing. Even though the film was scaled-down in terms of the spectrum of its ambition, it seemed like it had a more refined sensibility to it.

Wait… what am I saying? It’s an action film about the terrorists bombing the White House and I’m sitting here going on and on about its restraint and sophistication. Or maybe I

The White House is definitely down in "White House Down"

Somebody call Flo from Progressive and find out what the insurance rates’ll be after this little dust-up.

was just fooled by the quality of the cast again. Foxx ends up playing Sawyer in a pretty straight line, so to speak (although, there was one section involving the President’s attachment to his “Jordans” that’s tongue-in-cheek), and the rest of the cast follows in his footsteps.

Maggie Gyllenhall (who plays Secret Service representative Carol Finerty), like always, does an admirable job with the one-dimensional character she’s given. This was one of the film’s mistakes, as I believe a little more background on this particular character’s relationship with her superior could have move the films to a higher level. Finerty’s supervisor is the retiring Walker (and masterfully played by the scenery-chomping – as always – James Woods), as the day the attack goes down is actually the day that Walker received his “retirement cake” from his co-workers. Talk about clichés, right? It doesn’t get any more clichéd than the “shit-hits-the-fan retirement day.”

But, it’s Woods that adds a level of credibility to the clichés. Not to mention that Woods has one of the most glorious, white-hued flat top I’ve ever seen on film. It’s very R. Lee Ermey-esque and it works perfectly with Woods rocking it.

Some of the standouts also joining Woods in this star-studded cast are (in no particular order): Australian actor Jason Clarke (who’s been getting a lot of plum roles as of late, mind you – most recently George Wilson in “The Great Gatsby”) as the unflinchingly nasty baddie with the fantastic bad guy name, Emil Stenz.

There’s Richard Jenkins doing his normal Richard Jenkins-thing as Speaker of the House Raphelson. 14-year old actress Joey King (she also stars in the upcoming horror flick, “The Conjuring”) does a TREMENDOUS job as the token child-in-peril role of Emily Kale, who would of stole the show if Mr. Woods and his child-eating flat top wasn’t around. Jimmi Simpson is at his quick-quipping best as hacker extraordinaire Theo… I mean, Tyler. Relatively unknown Nicolas Wright nabbed himself a nice breakout role as Donnie the tour guide and a special shout-out to the man with the best voice in all the land, Fringe star Lance Reddick, who plays the by-the-book General Caulfield.

So, I’ve named quite a few cast members, but you might have noticed that I’ve left a pretty important one off the list. Yup, that’s right – Mister Sexy, himself – Channing Tatum. Actually, I saved him last for a reason. I wanted to apologize for any doubts I had about his career or any ill-timed comment I might have made about his ability to carry a movie or, for that matter, act. I wanted to say – to you, Mr. Tatum – that I was wrong about you. Very wrong. In reality, you are a charismatic and funny action hero-type, who CAN carry a movie and make us care about what is happening on-screen. Bravo, Mr. Tatum. Huzzah to you, good sir.

Nevertheless, now that I’ve congratulated Tatum on his performance as the hard-to-kill,

Channing Tatum looking manly in "White House Down"

Channing Tatum stalks his prey like a cat – a cat with sick abs, a wife beater and a haircut that costs hundreds of dollars – but a cat, nonetheless.

wannabe Secret Service Agent, John Kale (a good detective might have noticed the surname similarities of John Kale to the aforementioned Emily Kale – okay, they’re father and daughter), I’m going to have to turn around and be a “Negative Nancy.” I’ll just say this: I liked this character better in 1988 when he was named John McClain.

Yup, I pulled the “Die Hard” comparison out, which is bound to be noticed by 3 out of every 4 moviegoers who see ‘White House Down.” The similarities are just soooooo obvious. Some of the action sequences (i.e.: the helicopters vs. bad guys on the roof, the “Don’t shoot… don’t shoot me!” ruse by the good guy on the bad guy, etc.) are blatantly copied from the original Bruce Willis vehicle.  In fact, “White House Down” is more “Die Hard” than “A Good Day to Die Hard” was.

Many of the characters are “Die Hard” rip-offs, as well. You’ll notice I called Jimmi Simpson’s hacker character “Theo” earlier. Of course, Theo was safe cracker/ hacker from “Die Hard” (“The RV is toast.”) The Emil Stenz character is the long-haired blond terrorist Karl. He even has a scene where he goes apeshit after his “brother” is killed. The main bad guy (although I won’t say who it is – it’s a surprise!) is very similar to Hans Gruber. Although, this time the terrorists use their money demands to cover up their real political agenda, which, of course, is totally opposite from the baddies in “Die Hard.” Maggie Gyllenhall’s character – with her being in constant contact with McClain… I mean… John Kale (I did it again!) from the outside the whole time – offers some Al Powell-like words of encouragement when the chips are down. There’s even a “send in the car”- type of scene, but this time it’s more like, “Send in the tank.” But, it’s the same, basic principle.

The film also shares the fact that a building is an actual character in both films. In “Die Hard,” Nakatomi Plaza was just as important as any human role in the film and it’s the same for the White House in this film. I mean the name of the film IS “White House Down,” not “Channing Tatum Down” or “Jamie Foxx Down.” However, like my friend who saw this movie with me pointed out, the real title should have been “McClain and Obama go to the White Castle.”

Even after all the inevitable “Die Hard” comparisons, all of the blatant usage of foreshadowing (seriously, there were a few lines where I had to laugh out loud, they were so obvious), and some of the sappier, mega-trite moments of hyper-patriotism near the end of the film – I’d have to say that this is a thoroughly enjoyable summer popcorn action film.

Roland Emmerich has finally learned to ease up on the heartstring-tugging and, as moviegoers, we’re all better for it.

That being said, the two-part sequel to “Independence Day” – “ID Forever Part 1& 2” – has just been announced with Bill Pullman reprising the fictional role of President Thomas J. Whitmore. Let us pray that he maintains this atmospheric balance of humor and action with those two films and if he does, we should be okay.

I just wonder, with all the destruction and mayhem that stemmed from the first alien invasion in “Independence Day”…

What the hell is left for him to blow up this time?


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