I blew off “Olympus Has Fallen” in March. So any reader looking for an in-depth comparison between “White House Down” and the year’s other lone-lawman-protects-U.S.-president-and-child-during-White-House-attack movie will have to search elsewhere.
The villains in “Olympus” came from North Korea. Bad guys in “Down” represent a coalition of right-wing Americans, from white supremacists to “patriots” who believe we should nuke most Arabs to prevent flare-ups in the Middle East. So perhaps your choice will depend on your taste in hissable creeps, especially as neither director – Antoine Fuqua in “Olympus,” Roland Emmerich in “Down” – traditionally spends a lot of time developing complicated characters.
Emmerich actually takes longer than usual to get to the first explosion in “White House Down.” Former soldier John Cale (Channing Tatum) works for the speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives (Richard Jenkins), whose son he pulled out of a fiery Humvee in combat. Cale actually longs to become a Secret Service agent, but the woman who interviews him (Maggie Gyllenhaal) turns him down, because she thinks he’s not mature enough to finish what he starts. (She just happens to be his ex-girlfriend from college. Yes, it’s another story line purchased from Coincidences-R-Us.)
Cale has brought his estranged 11-year-old daughter (Joey King) to the White House for that disastrous interview, so he takes her on a guided tour to cheer both of them up. It’s interrupted by machine guns and detonations, as terrorists attempt to capture President Sawyer (Jamie Foxx) alive and force him to launch missiles.
Draw modern political analogies if you like: Sawyer is an academic who never served time in the military and is thought to be soft on defense by hard-liners. He wants to withdraw troops from the Middle East indefinitely, enraging the military-industrial complex that profits by deployment of a huge army. (As if this character isn’t Obama-esque enough, he chews Nicorette furiously, in an effort to stop smoking.)
But the movie remains mostly an attempt by a dad to impress his child, then save her from peril at risk of his life. All the usual character needs are firmly in place for Cale: The need to prove his merit to a disbelieving boss, his devoted fatherhood to his ex-wife and his love to his daughter. Tatum switches easily between fight sequences and humor or tenderness.
Emmerich has always handled action scenes capably. I no longer hope for any kind of realistic fights, battles or crashes in movies – those went out more than 25 years ago – but writer James Vanderbilt (who worked on last year’s “Spider-Man” reboot for Marc Webb) keeps things believable for awhile.
Only in the last half-hour do the usual Emmerich absurdities pile up: I laughed outright at the character who, past 65 and diagnosed with a massive brain tumor that will kill him within months, cannot be stopped by a ferocious beating, being stabbed in the neck with a sharp implement, then being crushed against a wall by an SUV moving at a minimum of 30 mph.
Emmerich has been smart enough to keep us in suspense by populating the film with people who often play bad guys – James Woods, Richard Jenkins, Michael Murphy, Lance Reddick – so we can’t be sure who’s on Cale’s side.
Sadly, a genius hacker is an effete queen who sucks on lollipops and breaks into NORAD’s missile system while mincing around to classical music. I guess we know no real American hero like John Cale listens to someone like Beethoven.
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