“White House Down” Movie Review

      Watching Roland Emmerich’s new film “White House Down” is like watching a rerun on television.  As expected, this is no more than a less gritty, PG-13 version of “Olympus  Has Fallen”.  In addition, “White House Down” follows the standard “Die Hard” formula so closely, you can literally predict scene after scene.  This film has so much going against it, I don’t know where to start.  As a simple minded popcorn entertainment, I suppose there will be an audience for this rehash of better action films, but I think I can narrow down why this movie will ultimately fail both at the box office and with audiences who expect more.

     First and foremost, Roland Emmerich is seeming a lot like M. Night Shyamalan these days in that his films are clearly getting worse.  Like Shyamalan, he had a hand in helping create a kind of modern sub genre. Emmerich began his directing career with two modest hits, “Universal Soldier” and “Stargate”, that have become science fiction classics today, even though they weren’t seen as ultra successful films at the time.  In 1996, Emmerich scored big with “Independence Day” and the disaster film turned summer tentpole was born.  In the years since, Emmerich has gone on to make a number of these films including “Godzilla”, “The Day After Tomorrow”, “10,000 BC”, and “2012”.  None of those films were able to eclipse the box office success of “Independence Day” and each was critically panned, especially the god awful “2012”.  In short, Emmerich scored a major hit early, but hasn’t produced anything on par since and “White House Down” continues the trend.

     The next issue stems from these unnecessary studio competitions in which rivals compete and sometimes race to get their movie about a particular topic out first.  One really can’t argue coming out first means the most success since the quality of a film should really stand on it’s own.  We’ve seen this numerous times in the past with examples such as Universal’s “Dante’s Peak” being challenged by Fox’s “Volcano” in 1997 and Paramount’s “Deep Impact” waging war against Buena Vista’s “Armageddon” in 1998.  This year “Olympus Has Fallen” beat “White House Down” to the big screen and also featured an “R” rating which I think allowed director Antoine Fuqua the freedom to have his film play out in more of the way it would in real life.  Conversely, Emmerich is forced to rely more on humor, which lets the audience off the hook when it comes to edge of your seat suspense.  In this case, I believe the comparisons hurt “White House Down” significantly because it becomes more and more difficult to take the characters seriously and you never really buy in to anything being at stake.

     “Olympus Has Fallen” suffered greatly from this third and final problem.  I still fail to understand why studios continue to make films based on the narrative made famous in “Die Hard”.  By doing this, any chance of originality goes completely out the window and it makes these films predictable in a way where they become unenjoyable.  As I said earlier, who wants to watch a rerun? Even worse, who wants to see different actors go through the motions in a plot made famous over 20 years ago?  I sat in my seat watching “White House Down” with that sarcastic smile on my face as the tell tale scene began playing out on screen.  A newly sworn in President decides to send elite soldiers to the White House via helicopter, as if the terrorists inside would not be ready for such a move.  Channing Tatum’s hero character, Cale, pleads from the inside against such a tactic, telling the powers that be the terrorists are in possession of advanced surface to air missiles that will easily take down the approaching helicopters.  Of course, nobody listens to him and everyone watches as the bad guys easily fend off the last ditch effort by the bureaucrats outside before the hero inside saves the day.  Yes, this exact sequence took place in “Olympus Has Fallen” as well, just like it did in “Die Hard”.

     Emmerich has in no way proven to be the hack that say Michael Bay is these days.  He loves to populate his films with characters who really seem to be cool under pressure and use comic relief to lighten up the mood, all the while finding a reason to destroy famous landmarks. The lead character, Cale (Tatum),  spends plenty of time wise cracking as he plays a “Rocky” like underdog trying to make a better life for him and his daughter, Emily (Joey King).  Shortly after Cale bombs during an interview to become a Secret Service Agent at the White House, Emily joins him on a tour of the building.  That’s when Stenz (Jason Clarke), a former operative who the government left hanging, leads an all out assault on the White House and seemingly takes the building with ease thanks to help from a rogue Secret Service Agent.  It was disappointing to see Clarke play his character straight up with no identifiable personality or reasoning for the actions he is responsible for throughout.  He played a similar role in last year’s “Zero Dark Thirty”, but there his performance was haunting and filled with an emotional resonance that helped that film excel.  In “White House Down”, he’s just another terrorist you don’t care about.

     As President Sawyer, Jamie Foxx does his best Obama impersonation, all the way down to his affinity for basketball and the chosen line of sneakers he wears.  Screenwriter James Vanderbilt concocts a story similar to what we see in today’s headlines, where Sawyer’s left wing peace driven policies tend to have plenty of critics from the right.  Foxx and Tatum are an unlikely pair, but provide a few comical moments that in real life would not be believable.   It’s just hard for me to believe the President would say “Get your hands off my Jordans” while repeatedly kicking a terrorist in the head who has put him in harms way. Emmerich thrusts the two into several high octane action set pieces, but it’s nothing you haven’t already seen before in much better films.  During most of these scenes, Tatum sports the same “wife beater” tank top that Bruce Willis wore in “Die Hard”, lending perhaps a bit of homage to the movie that started it all.  Essentially, that’s what we have here.  “White House Down” is an overblown expensive homage to the past, since clearly the filmmakers couldn’t come up with something to stand on it’s own. GRADE: D-