The Aisle Seat - Movie Reviews by Mike McGranaghan
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THE AISLE SEAT - by Mike McGranaghan


White House Down

It's always weird when Hollywood releases two movies with identical plots within a few months of each other. It's even weirder when neither of them are very good. Two tries and no one could get it right? Really?! Back in March, Olympus Has Fallen imagined a terrorist assault on the White House, with one heavily armed ex-Special Forces agent sneaking around its hallowed halls to take down the assailants. The new White House Down also imagines an assault on the White House, with one heavily armed Secret Service wannabe sneaking around to foil the baddies. My problems with Olympus were its complete predictability and the uncomfortable, distracting allusions to 9/11. My problems with White House Down are its predictability and its refusal to settle on a tone.

Channing Tatum plays John Cale, a Capitol policeman who aspires to join the Secret Service. On the day of his job interview, he takes his politically-obsessed daughter Emily (Joey King) along with him for the White House tour. Cale doesn't get the job, but while he's there, a paramilitary group storms the building and tries to take President James Sawyer (Jamie Foxx) hostage. They get Emily instead. Cale knows he will have to use his skills to keep the president safe and rescue his little girl. Do you think he'll end up getting hired if he succeeds?

Both Olympus Has Fallen and White House Down have been dubbed “Die Hard in the White House,” yet both – and especially this one – fail to recognize what made that 1988 template-setter so perfect. It was a pretty basic story about a guy trying to save his wife, who'd been taken hostage in an office building. WHD isn't interested in that kind of clean, streamlined plot. No, its goal is to destroy 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue room by room, in grandly staged set pieces. If it's a spot in, or related to, the White House that you've seen before, there's a sequence in which it gets trashed. The Oval Office, Air Force One, the press room (which, it should be noted, contains the world's sturdiest podium), and even the White House screening room are all locations for violent mayhem. That's not inherently problematic, except that the film visibly labors to get its characters to each place. You sense that the intent was not so much to tell a tight story as to figure out a creative way to lay waste to each recognizable environment. Nowhere is this more obvious than in a ridiculous, laugh-inducing scene in which Cale and Sawyer, in the Presidential limo, drive circles around the North Lawn fountain while being chased by the bad guys. The abject silliness of such sequences greatly diminishes the film's overall excitement level.

The director here is Roland Emmerich, who once upon a time made a very entertaining movie called Independence Day. Since that time, he has churned out a series of increasingly bombastic and mindless action pictures that are notable for their uninspired plots, one-dimensional characters, and predictable, telegraphed-in-advance outcomes. (Interestingly, both Independence Day and 2012 also contained scenes in which the White House is destroyed. I guess Mr. Emmerich has a very limited repertoire. Or a grudge.) WHD absolutely continues this trend. What's particularly galling this time is that the director doesn't seem to have a handle on what kind of movie he's making. Some of the scenes suggest he wants to make a serious, kick-ass action picture; other scenes come across like he's making a parody of an action picture. The performances are subsequently all over the map. Jason Clarke (who plays one of the villains) and James Woods (who portrays the head of Presidential Detail) both bring real intensity to the movie, suggesting that they want to add suspense. Some of the other actors, including the members of the paramilitary group, exaggerate their performances to almost comical levels. Tatum and Foxx, meanwhile, try to bring an old-fashioned “buddy picture” vibe to the film. These disparate tones ultimately don't mesh well together, leading to a huge mess.

The thing that's potentially most interesting in the film – the main villain's reason for organizing the assault – is largely downplayed to avoid getting too political. Well, if you're gonna attack the White House, it's darn sure happening for political reasons, so why not just explore that? White House Down certainly could use a shot of substance. There's definitely a lot going on, so it's never exactly boring, and some of the peripheral stuff (Woods, Clarke, a subplot about Sawyer's radical peace plan) isn't bad. But here's the bottom line: you either have fun at a mindless movie like this or you don't. I did not. Although I didn't like it much either, Olympus Has Fallen at least knew what kind of movie it wanted to be, and it stuck with that approach. White House Down wants to be every kind of movie. That prevents it from being fully satisfying on any level.

( out of four)

White House Down is rated PG-13 for prolonged sequences of action and violence including intense gunfire and explosions, some language and a brief sexual image. The running time is 2 hours and 11 minutes.

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