‘White House Down’ Review
‘White House Down‘ has the disadvantage of being the second ‘Die Hard’-in-the-White-House movie of 2013 after ‘Olympus Has Fallen,’ and the advantage of being superior to its predecessor in every conceivable way. It’s better directed, better written, and better acted. The action is better, with more impressive special effects; the production design is better, with a much more convincing replica of the White House; the camerawork is better; with clear, lucid images. Where ‘Olympus Has Fallen’ was grim and stern, ‘White House Down’ actually embraces the silliness of its premise. It’s more exciting and more faithful to the ‘Die Hard’ formula. This is still basically a shameless ripoff popcorn movie, but it’s a shameless ripoff popcorn movie popped to near-perfection.
When I say it’s faithful to the ‘Die Hard’ formula, I mean you could easily convince me director Roland Emmerich and screenwriter James Vanderbilt they were working from a checklist. Their hero, John Cale (Channing Tatum), has a name just three letters removed from John McClane. He’s an average cop way out of his league; trapped in a building with some angry terrorists who are holding a bunch of hostages, including one of McClane’s Cale’s loved ones — in this case, his daughter Emily (Joey King). The terrorists are efficient, merciless, deadly, and their ranks include a computer hacker who likes to listen to classical music while he works. While the authorities on the outside underestimate Cale — who even strips down to a white a-shirt for maximum visual resonance with Bruce Willis’ signature action hero — he continues to fight on the inside to save the day and rescue the President of the United States, James Sawyer (Jamie Foxx).
So ‘White House Down’ isn’t going to win any awards for originality. But with this sort of picture, it’s not about originality; it’s about execution, and this movie’s is surprisingly feisty. The pieces all fall into place: Tatum is likable and energetic — and unlike the real John McClane in this year’s actual ‘Die Hard’ movie, he looks like he’s happy to be here. Foxx manages to be Presidential without taking himself too seriously — at one point, he beats a bad guy up while screaming “Get your hands off my Jordans!” — and his buddy chemistry with Tatum is superb. The supporting cast is solid too, from Maggie Gyllenhall and James Woods as Secret Service agents, to Richard Jenkins as the Speaker of the House to Lance Reddick as a no-nonsense military official, to Nicolas Wright as the de facto Reginald VelJohnson comic sidekick, a White House tour guide who helps Cale and Emily.
Emmerich, who has elevated blowing famous landmarks to kingdom come to high (lowbrow) art, reigns in some of his more bombastic impulses here — the key word being some, sorry The Capitol Building — to focus in on the gun fights, chase scenes (on the White House lawn!) and conversations between Cale and Sawyer. He spends an admirable amount of time establishing the relationships before he starts establishing the explosions; the action doesn’t begin until after a lengthy White House tour sequence which gives you a good sense of Cale and Emily’s connection and the geography of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. And James Vanderbilt’s script seeds all kinds of lovely moments that all pay off in big laughs or emotional beats — even seemingly throwaway lines about Emily’s extracurricular activities or the President’s belief that the pen is mightier than the sword bear major fruit in the finale. ‘White House Down’ might not be innovative, but it is well-constructed.
Gerard Butler, the star of ‘Olympus Has Fallen,’ is a serviceable action hero, but Tatum is a better one — more charming, more light on his feet, and more in on the joke of the lunacy of a ‘Die Hard’ movie set in the White House (or, y’know, in on the joke at all — Butler played his part like a guy who’d just come from a funeral). In my ‘Olympus Has Fallen’ review for ScreenCrush, I said that the generally shabby quality of the sets and lighting made the film look, at times, “like its own direct-to-video rip-off mockbuster.” Today I’d like to amend that statement; clearly, at its worst, ‘Olympus Has Fallen’ is the mockbuster version of ‘White House Down.’‘White House Down’ opens in theaters on June 28.
Matt Singer is a Webby award winning writer and podcaster. He currently runs the Criticwire blog on Indiewire and co-hosts the Filmspotting: Streaming Video Unit podcast. His criticism has appeared in the pages of The Village Voice and Time Out New York and on ‘Ebert Presents at the Movies.’ He lives in Brooklyn with his wife, dog, and a prop sword from the movie ‘Gymkata.’