If it were almost anyone other than Roland Emmerich directing, I’d be convinced “White House Down” is a parody of the “Die Hard Formula.”
However, because this is the same man who has saved the day in the past by having his heroes hack alien spaceships with a Mac laptop or (literally) outrun cold weather, I’m pretty certain Emmerich just thinks he’s being awesome here. And, for the record, I am totally OK with him thinking that, because “White House Down” is one of the better action blockbusters I’ll watch this summer.
“White House Down” is silly. Rampantly silly. And it shares more than a few passing similarities to the original “Die Hard,” much in the same way that this year’s first “White House Gets Exploded By Terrorists” flick, “Olympus Has Fallen” did. It features a down-on-his-luck father who finds himself in the wrong place at the wrong time who must stop a well-armed and smart cadre of terrorists whose plan to get money isn’t actually their plan at all. Oh, and also there’s a kid involved who the protagonist must rescue at some point or another.
I still think “Olympus” was a fun time, but what “WHD” has in favor of it is sheer scale (and budget). “Olympus” (by comparison) feels like a pretty limited affair (after the opening assault, that is), all things considered, whereas “White House Down” has a much bigger Explosions Per Minute expenditure than its predecessor and feels overall less contained, as it were. I also find it interesting that “WHD” has more of a political bent than “Olympus,” though that’s not to say it’s making Democrats or Republicans look bad. More, “perpetual war is bad, mmmkay? And so are the people who profit from it.”
Otherwise, it’s mostly just two-plus hours of Channing Tatum shooting machine guns and setting fire to the White House (seriously, this is a thing that happens) while President Jamie Foxx mishandles rocket launchers.
Tatum is pretty great here, a phrase I’m still not used to writing. As John Cale, he gets thrown into protecting President Sawyer (Foxx) when terrorists lay siege to the White House as he and his daughter are on a tour (right after he blows an interview trying to get hired as a Secret Service agent). Desperate to rescue his daughter, Cale instead finds himself trying to protect the president.
Thanks to Tatum’s solid everyman performance (or, at least as much as an everyman one can be while dodging explosions and leaping from windows), Cale comes across as a much more affable and likable lead than Gerard Butler’s Banning in “Olympus” and that adds a bit more levity to the proceedings. “Olympus” took itself pretty seriously from start to finish, something “WHD” never really does. That’s not to say that the film is self-aware (not even close), but the moments of humor found here go a long way toward making “WHD” lighter on its feet.
The action quotient in “WHD” is staggering, even by contemporary standards. Once the initial explosion engulfs the rotunda at the Capitol Building in Washington, D.C., I’m pretty sure there isn’t a single five minute span during, which a bullet isn’t fired, an explosion set off or a punch thrown.
There are a few moments of shakycam foolishness (a trend that’s slowly dying out, thankfully) though most of them are unfortunately during the water-soaked climactic brawl between Cale and the lead terrorist (played with grizzled gusto by Jason Clarke). But by and large, Emmerich proves he’s still one of the better action directors out there, always providing a clean sense of geography and place for his setpieces and managing to up the ante with each new sequence. Besides, Emmerich has proven time and again that he knows how to blow up the White House better than anyone, so I suppose it was only a matter of time until he made something like this.
“White House Down” is a derivative movie. I’m not sure even Emmerich or screenwriter James Vanderbilt would deny this. It lifts things wholesale from the “Die Hard” playbook seemingly without remorse, but it still manages to hit the right notes (both in action and character) without ever really making you sit there wishing you were watching John McClane.
Although, given how repugnant the last actual “Die Hard” movie was, I’ll take derivative and enjoyable over the “real thing.”