Sunday, June 30, 2013

The Cinema File #208: "White House Down" Review

This year, we were promised two movies with eerily similar plots that could both easily be described as Die Hard in the White House, a premise that at the time I thought might sound better on paper, but in execution was almost guaranteed to be too over the top and silly to work. I've now seen both films, Olympus Has Fallen and White House Down, and while both were as over the top and silly as I was expecting, somehow both of them managed to come together much better than I thought they would going in. Despite the lighter tone one would expect from Roland Emmerich and the notable lack of Morgan Freeman levels of gravitas, White House Down is I would say at least marginally if not clearly the superior film. That is, Channing Tatum notwithstanding.

I'm sorry, I just don't see what so many people like about the guy, especially after The Rock showed up in G.I. Joe 2 to showcase the obvious distinction between a real action star and a pretender to the throne. Same with Jaime Foxx for that matter. Again, its not that he's terrible, but the guy's milked the credibility of Ray a bit too much by this point, and I'm just hoping we get over our collective cultural obsession with the dude before someone makes an actual Obama movie instead of just this ass-kicking pastiche (Idris Elba will hopefully still be around by that point). Call it personal bias if you want, but Tatum's hero never struck me as believable, and Foxx's President might have been if he didn't have the naivete of a beauty pagent contestant asked about World Peace.

I suppose Tatum and Foxx are much more well suited to the kind of quippy buddy comedy style this movie employs, in a way that Gerard Butler and Aaron Eakhart certainly would not have been if the roles had been reversed, but not so much that I would not have preferred two generally more capable leads. They are saved however by the rest of the supporting cast, including the always enjoyable Richard Jenkins, a tour de force performance by James Woods, and Joey King, who both physically and in terms of talent reminded me of a younger Chloe Grace Moretz. You rarely ever see James Woods in a movie anymore, least of all one with this much meat to it, and he takes the opportunity to chew the scenery from beginning to end. Also Maggie Gyllenhal's in there, I mean, if you're into that sort of thing.

Its not just the caliber of the cast, but also the characters feel much more fleshed out than in the other film. That's still relative to a mindless action movie of course, but here at least we get a rogue's gallery of bad guys each with their own distinct personalities as opposed to one guy with a bunch of nameless thugs whose only identifying trait is being really good at planning and hating America. Yes, many of them are cliches like the anti-social hacker and the crazy redneck, but for what we're getting, its enough to keep you engaged and allow you to forgive the film's flippancy and flimsiness just long enough for it to be over before you're compelled to start asking too many questions.

And Its not just the characters either, but all the standard elements you want in this kind of movie are simply used to much better effect. Instead of following Red Dawn's stupid example and relying on the scary foreign bad guy North Koreans, here we get the Military Industrial Complex, explicitly mentioned by name, which unlike Kim Jong Whoever actually is a credible threat to America even if the political maneuver that motivates them in this case is so unrealistic. And instead of introducing a young vulnerable child and then just ending that plot thread prematurely, here this is actually exploited for dramatic effect and becomes a major part of the second and third acts.

The one area where White House Down fails to live up to Olympus is in the action, which in the previous film was much closer to that bloody hard R level I personally revel in, and that I expect in a movie like this one. The hijacking of the White House is actually a little more plausible in this film (again, relative to stupid), but it is at the expense of the wave of bloodshed, violence, and successive head shots I got a few months ago. Its a small quibble ultimately, and in many ways the PG-13 stunt work we get here is often just as good if not more fun and elaborate, even if it doesn't have that extra visceral punch of a blood splatter.

There are many moments in White House Down that feel like they would be better suited in the parody of a movie like this, where characters state the nature of their situation in such an obvious and hamfisted way as if to make it easier to include them in a montage of similarly hamfisted action movie jokes. In fact, while I would not have said at the time that Olympus Has Fallen took itself too seriously, now that I've watched this I think it might have. And yet, it strangely works, perhaps because we've become so accustomed to the cliches and so amenable to directors like Emmerich indulging in self-parody whether they know it or not. What might otherwise come off as carelessness or laziness instead feels like a loving tribute to cheesy action tropes, and that's White House Down in a nutshell. 

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