Friday, June 28, 2013

Review: White House Down (2013)

White House Down (2013)

In White House Down, John Cale (Channing Tatum), a rejected applicant for the Secret Service, finds himself having to rescue the President of the United States (Jamie Foxx) and his daughter (Joey King) after a group of terrorists attack the White House... hey, wait a minute, didn't I already review this movie three months ago? Well, kind of. I reviewed Olympus Has Fallen back in March, where I said that it was bland, uninspired drivel that was only redeemed by Gerard Butler as the hero and some solid action scenes. This film, on the other hand, is the one with Channing Tatum at the height of his career and Jamie Foxx fresh off of Django Unchained, and directed by Roland Emmerich, a man who knows how to direct truly breathtaking scenes of action and destruction. I went into this with two questions. First, how the hell can Hollywood make two movies with nearly identical plots in the same year? And second, does this movie do a better job of entertaining me than Olympus Has Fallen did?

To answer the first question, I still have no idea how it happened. And bizarrely, it's hardly the first time this has happened, or even the twentieth; here is a very long list of "dueling movies" with similar plots that, in what had to have been a sheer coincidence, just so happened to come out within a few months of one another. (Don't ask me why. Maybe Hollywood really is that lazy.) For the second question, I have a far clearer and, hopefully, more satisfying response: yes, this is a much better movie than Olympus Has Fallen, and one that left me a very happy moviegoer. It's a popcorn blockbuster at its finest, with terrific action scenes (even if some of the CGI is noticeable) and great buddy chemistry between Tatum and Foxx.

The thing that I most enjoyed about this film is that, unlike Olympus Has Fallen, this movie seems to embrace and acknowledge the fact that its plot is stupid. The bad guys have all manner of motivations: Walker (James Woods) wants revenge against the President for sending his son, a member of the Special Forces, to die in a botched mission in Iran, his lackeys are a motley crew of "black hat" computer hackers, right-wing militia nuts, and white-power skinheads who all have a grudge against the American government, and his shadowy backers in the military-industrial complex are trying to pull off a Business Plot-esque coup to prevent a withdrawal from the Middle East. Such a disparate mix of individuals should barely be able to work together... and sure enough, as they learn of each other's real motivations for attacking the White House, their alliances start to fray. Watching the bad guys' team tear itself apart over these conflicts was almost as entertaining as the real action here.

Tatum and Foxx make for a great team of action heroes, engaging in all manner of Lethal Weapon-inspired activities as they fight bad guys. Little touches like Foxx putting on a pair of Air Jordans instead of his dress shoes to fight in, or Tatum cursing to himself about how stupid his plan is, are light touches that had me smiling through this movie even through its slower segments. The supporting cast is also solid; little Joey King gave off a mix of courage and just the right amount of youthful smarminess to avoid coming off as annoying (like so many kids in movies), while the aforementioned Woods made a surprisingly complex villain who had nothing to lose from his attack. Maggie Gyllenhaal was largely relegated to background scenery as the "mission control" in the Pentagon who had a past with Tatum, but she did well enough in the role.

The key that made this whole thing work, however, was Roland Emmerich in the director's chair. Despite not engaging in the sort of world-destroying spectacle that characterized so many of his other films (Independence Day, The Day After Tomorrow, 2012), Emmerich still fills this movie with solid action that, once it finally gets going, consistently kicks all manner of ass. The fight scenes and shootouts are all nail-bitingly tense and thrilling, without any incoherence and shaky-cam that makes it difficult to follow along. It stands in stark contrast to last week's World War Z, where I could barely tell just what the hell was going on in half the movie. I've heard Emmerich's style compared to that of a painter, in that every shot looks like it could be framed and put on a wall; while I wouldn't go that far, he really goes out of his way to make this film look beautiful. The only real problems here are that the CGI here looks pretty subpar for a $150 million movie (the helicopter sequence in particular is guilty of this), and the film feels fairly long; the first half hour had almost no action, and the rest of the film is punctuated by long, slower sections. This hardly diminished my enjoyment of the film, as much of it is devoted to, respectively, introducing us to the main characters and the aforementioned bad-guy banter, but there were a number of scenes (particularly those at the Pentagon) that felt like they were there simply to pad this film's runtime.

Score: 4 out of 5

Despite feeling a bit too long at times, this is easily the better of the two "Die Hard in the White House" movies to come out this year, thanks to two great lead performances, great action, and an almost self-awareness of its own silliness that allowed me to forgive its plot holes. To think that the PG-13 movie managed to be a more entertaining action movie than its R-rated competitor...

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