White House Down review: I’d rather be in Philadelphia
It lifts an embarrassing number of beats from Die Hard… but Channing Tatum is no Bruce Willis.
I’m “biast” (pro):
I’m “biast” (con): so not a fan of Channing Tatum
(what is this about? see my critic’s minifesto)
Well, it’s better than Olympus Has Fallen, anyway.
This is very strange for me, because I really like Gerard Butler, who was the wounded, conflicted badass who saves the day in Olympus, this year’s other OMG-terrorists-in-the-Oval-Office flick, and I really hate Channing Tatum, who is the wounded, conflicted badass who saves the day in Down. And Tatum does nothing to redeem himself here: he is a resolutely flavorless screen presence. He’s not even vanilla. He just runs around the White House set saving the President ’n’ shit and not even snarking on what a bad day he’s having or anything. You never ever really believe he might screw it up or get hurt or do anything other than triumph. You can’t believe that he believes he can do anything other than win.
It would be stunning if some Bruce Willis-esque doubtful snarking were not in the first draft of the script, because screenwriter James Vanderbilt (The Amazing Spider-Man, The Losers) lifts an embarrassing number of beats from Die Hard — an off-duty cop outside his jurisdiction; a secret relative of the hero among the bad guys’ hostages; a sneaky plan by the villains that takes advantage of the supposedly smart response to their incursion. Yet somehow Vanderbilt manages to completely sidestep the wit: “Now I have a machine gun,” Tatum never taunts the bad guys with, even when he could. (I mean, if you’re gonna steal, at least steal the funny stuff, too.) Then again, it’s also impossible to imagine the robotically stolid Tatum being able to pull off such snarking even if it had been there for him. Willis was, in Die Hard, exactly the same age Tatum is now here, so I’m not comparing some decrepit old fogey to some invulnerable young stud. Tatum simply appears incapable of exuding the sort of human exhaustion and frustration you’d expect when a dude is under attack by bad guys with nothing to lose and down to his undershirt.
Maybe director Roland Emmerich (Anonymous, 2012) simply did not want a believably human hero, for god knows what reason.
One, I want to watch Die Hard again. Two, I want an independent UN commission to investigate how we can force Hollywood to develop a new template for action movies.
So: Bad guys take over the White House on a day when Tatum’s (This Is the End, G.I. Joe: Retaliation) DC cop is on a tour with his pubescent daughter (Joey King: The Conjuring, Oz the Great and Powerful), who is rather improbably a policy fangirl — she sets her phone to alert her when there’s breaking political news, even in the middle of the night. But at least it means the movie has a smart, competent little girl who gets to do some brave and fairly badass things later on, so she’s a net plus. We already know that Secret Service honcho James Woods (Be Cool, Stuart Little 2) is going to be the head bad guy, because he took the American flag pin off his lapel that morning, and told his wife “I’m gonna be late tonight” as he was leaving for work. James Woods isn’t quite Alan Rickman-as-Hans Gruber, but he chews scenery here like he hasn’t eaten in a month, and is part of why the movie isn’t a total loss.
Also: Jamie Foxx (Django Unchained, Rio) as the President. He generates enough good will that the actor could probably actually get elected himself.
White House Down is just passably mediocre enough — the action stuff is not wholly without entertainment value — that you can’t help but try to fix it and get it to a place where it might have been kinda great. Like this: It’s a shame what happens to Jake Weber’s Secret Service agent. Why couldn’t Weber (Chained, Dawn of the Dead) have played the Tatum part? We might have actually believed that “John Cale” — that’s right: only an “M” and an “N” and another “C” separates the hero here from being called “John McClane” — has a “lack of respect for authority,” instead of needing to be told this by Maggie Gyllenhaal (Hysteria, Nanny McPhee and the Big Bang) as another Secret Service agent and old friend of Tatum’s. Or hey! The awesome Jason Clarke (The Great Gatsby, Zero Dark Thirty), as the second-in-command bad guy? He would have been amazing as Cale.
But no. Instead we get some dramatic classical music soaring on the soundtrack for the computer-nerd bad guy while he works, and witless fisticuffs in the Oval Office, and Roland Emmerich somehow managing to be flag-wavingly jingoistic and also simultaneously nationalistically masochistic, like maybe he thinks we feel like we deserve to watch the White House burn so that we can pump our fists and yell “America! Fuck yeah!” when we win in the end.
Of course, imposing Channing Tatum on us as Our Hero is pretty masochistic, too.