Remember a few months ago when Olympus Has Fallen delivered dumb action craving audiences a remake of Die Hard in the White House? Well, just in time for July 4, we’re getting another one. That’s right, just like the summer of Dante’s Peak/Volcano or Deep Impact/Armageddon, two Hollywood studios got into a war over who could make the best blockbuster out of a B-concept and released them both in quick succession despite the inevitable audience confusion/exhaustion.
There’s no denying that the movies are weirdly similar right down to titles that are practically synonyms. However, White House Down did have one important ace up its sleeve that gave Sony the confidence to save their movie for the second release: director Roland Independence Day Emmerich. Few filmmakers have dedicated their careers to massive explosions and unapologetic stupidity as openly, consistently, and successfully as Emmerich. If anyone could milk the most expensive spectacle and laugh-out-loud ludicrousness out of this concept, it was Emmerich and unsurprisingly he delivered the delightfully dumb goods. White House Down might not be a stronger movie than Olympus Has Fallen, but it is certainly bigger and louder. In the summer blockbuster race, that’s almost as good as being better.
So…rather predictably, the plot for this White House siege movie is pretty well the same as the last. Channing Tatum is our John McClane stand-in who loses Bruce Willis points for being a young buck trying to prove himself worthy of a secret service gig rather than a grizzled veteran on a bad day, but gains them back for wearing a Bruce-approved undershirt for most of the proceedings (you know, for the ladies). The evil plot is this time masterminded by the prez’s top security advisor (James Woods), who hand picked a group of no-fly list enemies of the state to carry out his dastardly, mustache twirling, plot. Woods is out for revenge for his son that was killed in action, but that doesn’t really matter. What matters is the action we see onscreen as the capital building explodes, Air Force One faces attack, the few remaining heads of state panic over how to retaliate, and Tatum must save not only the president, but his daughter (and in the process, maybe even himself…awwwww).
“Few filmmakers have dedicated their careers to massive explosions and unapologetic stupidity as openly, consistently, and successfully as Roland Emmerich.”
The good news is that White House Down has a tongue stuck firmly in its cheek from frame one in a movie with as much knowing humor as accidental camp. Tatum does his sarcastic wisecracking thing with ease, Foxx has fun with a thinly veiled Obama impression, and Woods reminds us all why he’s Hollywood’s character actor/sleaze master general and should be getting more work. Emmerich indulges in his special brand of monument destruction porn and keeps things moving at a brisk pace even with a running time that teases the 2.5 hour mark. What Emmerich does best this time is gradually building up the absurd tone of the movie instead of peaking early like he has in all of his global destruction epics (Independence Day, The Day After Tomorrow, 2012, etc.). Things start off as grounded as a Die Hard In The White House movie could possibly be, but when the movie rockets towards it’s explosive climax suddenly we’re treated to scenes like Tatum and Foxx being chased around the White House lawn in the presidential limo by bad guys with machine guns before Foxx (who is playing the president, I can’t stress that enough at this point) starts firing a rocket launcher at the villains. When that sort of thing happens you just have to laugh, or ironically applaud, or chug back half of your giant cinema soda to try and match the junk food sugar high of what’s happening onscreen. Sure, it’s all nauseatingly patriotic to the point of propaganda, but with a movie like this you couldn’t expect anything less. The key thing is the spectacle and Emmerich crafts a rollercoaster ride of guns and explosions just like Hollywood used to specialize in before the superhero/fantasy boom.
The real ace in the hole for White House Down is the script by James Vanderilt (who wrote the rather brilliant Zodiac). Now, that’s not to say it’s a great piece of writing because this is very much blockbuster trash. But it’s at least well structured and knowingly clever. There is no dialogue as hilariously inept as Olympus Has Fallen and even one or two decent twists and snappy lines. Vanderlit even crams in some amusing White House in-jokes like using the underground tunnel that JFK used to sneak in Marilyn Monroe and the introduction of Donnie, the world’s most dedicated White House tour guide turned hero who could probably carry a spin off. Granted the good stuff comes with crap (like an irritating plot device that casts Tatum’s daughter as a pre-teen politically radical video blogger who records/uploads videos of the terrorists who somehow were too stupid to cut off cell reception), but it’s still probably the best script that Emmerich has ever had to work with and actually having a competently told story to contain his explosive spectacle makes a huuuuuge difference.
Toss in a slumming cast of stars and character actors who know exactly what type of movie they’re making and have just as much fun as the audience, and you’ve got yourself a throwback summertime crowd-pleaser. It’s big, silly, dumb, and fun blockbuster entertainment just like mom used to make. As far as unofficial Die Hard remakes go, it’s one of the best (not quite The Rock, but a hell of a lot better than Under Siege). In fact, the flick works so well that you can’t help but wonder why this script wasn’t quickly rewritten into a fifth Die Hard movie instead of that franchise bottoming out with the awkward Cold War spy thriller that was A Good Day To Die Hard. If there are still good Die Hard knock-offs to be made, why can’t they be actual Die Hard movies at this point? Who knows? Who cares? Certainly the people who make these movies aren’t thinking this much about them and that’s probably how it should be.