17 September 2013

Review: White House Down

(Dir: Roland Emmerich, 2013)

This is the year that Hollywood seems to be accepting the position of the USA in the world and that nowhere on its soil is ever going to be truly safe from terrorism; not even the sacred grounds of the White House. That's just the times - and so to White House Down, part two of this big realisation that teases us with bigger and better explosions and a different enemy. Part one arrived earlier in the year in the shape of Olympus Has Fallen, a dour and cruelly patriotic film that reveled in the blood of it's enemies through average action scenes and a terrible script and acting. It's the kind of film you can imagine being shown at military recruitment centres with the disclaimer - this is what is gonna happen if you don't sign up to fight to protect Merica. It's still one of the worst films I've seen this year. [Read my full review of it here]. 

White House Down attacks from a different angle and it has a better weapon - it's casting. Again this film is simply about terrorists wanting to take over the White House whilst a lone unwitting hero finds himself in the position where he must stop them and save the President. And it's the casting of these two key roles that make the difference. Channing Tatum's hero Cale, a bodyguard hoping to get into the secret service, is handy in a fight, has an easy nature that makes him perfect to root for and is easy on the eye in his suit and eventual obligatory McClane style white vest. We believe in him, we want him to succeed. Likewise Jamie Foxx's President Sawyer seems to have not let power go to his head and is likable too, but the key is when they're together, which takes us into quality buddy movie territory. They play off each other terrifically and this generates a much needed level of comedy, which also comes from forgetting some of the presidential deference that is rightly abandoned in this type of desperate situation - such as watching the President use a rocket launcher from a limo's window with wild abandon!

The rest of the casting pays off, with a host of recognisable faces popping up to add credibility to the myriad other politicians in the film. Maggie Gyllenhaal and Richard Jenkins are reliable and play their roles well, and it's great to see Lance Reddick pop up even if he does overplay his General a touch, whilst James Woods conforms to his usual type but dammit he's always good value. Most notable is the villainous side of things, where Jason Clarke has the right charisma to believe he's capable of leading a band of mercenaries and that he'll be determined and hard enough to succeed. And this is the key - we're talking a band of mercenaries, white power nuts and a hacker who want to take down the seat of power; Americans, not the North Koreans or some imagined Arab state. As such this is a far more interesting proposition that serves to highlight how there's now the need to look inwards, which is always potentially scarier. It also means there's less over-played patriotism because it doesn't quite turn into America crushing it's enemy. Kudos for that.

This year has been pretty weak on the action movie front, but White House Down steps up to the plate and satisfactorily fills this hole, playing the whole thing for maximum entertainment value with overblown explosions, crashing helicopters and the thrill of watching the President of the USA with a machine gun in his hand and a limo doing donuts on the White House lawn. Tatum has so much personality compared to Gerard Butler in Olympus Has Fallen, who is so wooden that he only comes alive with a knife in his hand. Again this is the John McClane school of hero - we like him, we believe he has it in him to win. Even more amazingly the film manages to not derail itself by mixing Cale's eleven year old daughter (Joey King) into proceedings, as she offers a well balanced counterpoint, even if they do seem to be overreaching with aspects of her characterisation.

Whilst watching White House Down I was struck by a realisation that I was enjoying it far too much - way more than I imagined in fact. Sure it's cheesy, unoriginal, too long, slow to actually get going and didn't need the final plot twists / action sequence, but it's the type of decent action film that Hollywood seems to be forgetting how to make, whilst proving that a quality buddy movie requires chemistry and some levity. And pitching it as a reminder that the greatest threat probably lies within rather than outside borders feels like a sensible direction, as well as dampening down the chest-beating patriotism. We certainly don't need two films with this identical plotting, but there's not a single reason to choose Olympus Has Fallen over the ridiculously fun White House Down.

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