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Reviews » Theatrical Reviews » White House Down
White House Down
Sony Pictures // PG-13 // June 28, 2013
Review by Tyler Foster | posted June 28, 2013 | E-mail the Author
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It's not even noon, and John Cale (Channing Tatum) is not having a great day. His daughter Emily (Joey King) is giving him the cold shoulder because he missed her talent show, he's just bombed a job interview with the Secret Service, and he can't bring himself to be honest with Emily about it, so they're spending the day touring the White House. Oh, and terrorists attack the building and hold everyone hostage while Emily is in the bathroom. John puts his life on the line with a daring escape, sneaking downstairs to find Emily, but instead he finds President James Sawyer (Jamie Foxx) and frees him from the enemy's clutches. While the Vice President (Michael Murphy), the Speaker (Richard Jenkins), General Caufield (Lance Reddick), and John's disapproving interviewer Special Agent Finnerty (Maggie Gyllenhaal) try and figure out a plan of action from the outside, John's busy on the inside, trying to keep himself, POTUS, and his daughter alive.

Although comparing two movies against one another isn't a great tactic, it's hard to ignore the fact that White House Down arrives just a few months after Olympus Has Fallen, in which Gerard Butler played a former Secret Service agent trying to rescue the President from Korean antagonists that have taken the White House. The trailers for the two films practically beg for the viewer to connect them -- both have big directors (Roland Emmerich on White House Down, Antoine Fuqua on Olympus Has Fallen) and intriguing ensemble casts, both feature surprisingly similar money shots (the flag falling onto the front lawn, helicopters exploding on the roof, planes flying over the National Mall), and both are action movies in the time-tested Die Hard mold, complete with a wisecracking hero trying to save a family member. The primary difference is that Olympus was an R-rated movie by Millennium, an indie distributor, and Down is a PG-13 summer blockbuster bankrolled by Sony.

The main advantage White House Down has is the strength of its cast, who understand the tone of the kind of movie they're making and nail it perfectly. Channing Tatum had a breakout 2012, spanning three hit movies, one of which was the excellent action / comedy 21 Jump Street. John Cale is not as dumb as his Jump Street character Jenko, but he uses the same casual comedic chops here to good effect, lowering the corniness of his strained relationship with his daughter and his determination to save her once the action starts. He also has excellent chemistry with Foxx, who expertly balances Presidential nobility on top of buddy-comedy banter. Although they're not teamed up for as much of the movie as the trailers might imply, they're a ton of fun to watch (highlight: Cale and Sawyer driving in circles on the White House lawn while enemy SUVs chase them). Gyllenhaal imbues a role that exists to deliver exposition and provide dramatic foundation with a little warmth, and other key players, including James Woods, Jason Clarke, Jimmi Simpson, and Nicholas Wright, round the cast out nicely.

The weak link is Emmerich, who doesn't seem to be having any fun. It'd be one thing if Emmerich and screenwriter James Vanderbilt had set out to do something fresh and different, but White House Down is formula to a T, and it's better to inject flash and style into a formula picture than to try and fool the audience into taking things seriously. There's a certain joy in a movie that embraces its own silliness for the sake of spectacle, especially when the beats are this familiar, but Emmerich is insistently dour, desperate for the viewer to worry about John's regret and whether Emily will survive. To add insult to injury, much of Emmerich's action direction is dull, with too many shots of Cale diving for cover as a hail of bullets destroy the walls. The battles are less choppy and more coherent than many modern action movies, but that doesn't automatically make them interesting. The film could also stand to lose 10 minutes, which is probably possible without cutting a single scene.

Vanderbilt deserves some praise for the screenplay, which serves up several amusing set-ups and pay-offs, and cleverly works around a long-standing genre trope (relating to the villains) that Olympus didn't even try to avoid. There's even a nice subtle touch regarding the ending -- I won't say too much, but consider how the news reports will recount the story. Again, it's Die Hard in a White House, replicating nearly every beat (there's even some winks and nods on the soundtrack), but considering the film's goals, Vanderbilt succeeds where Emmerich stumbles. White House Down and Olympus Has Fallen both have their pros and cons: the former has a better cast, a bigger budget, and is arguably a better movie, but the latter doesn't have a director working against its own nature. Maybe someone can figure out which movie has better hair.


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