In case you all hadn’t noticed, I took a bit of time off last weekend to go pound some drums in Seattle. This naturally means that I’m somewhat behind schedule in my reviewing, so let’s see what’s hit multiplexes since I went out of town.

  • The Heat — If the two lead actresses had swapped roles, then maybe this would have been a movie worth watching. As it is, however, I’ve had enough of Melissa McCarthy. I haven’t even seen any of her movies since Bridesmaids, but watching her in the trailers for this one (and This is 40, and Identity Thief, and even Hangover III) wore me out on her loud and obnoxious schtick in record time. Oh, and Sandra Bullock is playing a snarky, straight-laced FBI agent who’s hated by everyone. Sorry, but I’m in no mood for a rerun of Miss Congeniality. And speaking of Hollywood deja vu…
  • White House Down — I’d probably be much more open to this movie if Olympus Has Fallen had flopped. As it is, we’ve got Channing Tatum going up against a badass performance by Gerard Butler, and Roland Emmerich trying to top the superb direction of Antoine Fuqua. That’s a dicey proposition. As for last weekend…
  • World War Z — This one had a long and tremendously difficult time getting made, limping by entirely on the star power and raw ego of Brad Pitt. In the end, this film is reportedly a piss-poor adaptation of a book held in very high esteem by millions of readers (myself included), which of course surprises precisely no one. And finally…
  • Monsters University — The Pixar brand is slowly losing steam, and I’m still not entirely convinced that this was a story in need of telling. Even so, Pixar still brings a fair bit of quality to their movies.

These films all had middling reviews, and I had healthy reservations about each of them, and yet they all had the potential to be enjoyable. I’d honestly rather skip them entirely, and I certainly don’t have time for all of them, yet each of these films are big enough that I can’t ignore them.

In the end, I went with my classic method of “theater grab bag.” It’s simple, really: I come to the theater when I’m able and then pick whichever movie is screening immediately after I show up. Tonight’s lucky winner: White House Down.

To start with, I may as well weigh in on the film’s director, Roland Emmerich. The man is often lumped in with Michael Bay, since they’re both known for making loud CGI-laden spectacles that revel in mindless destruction. I’ve seen critics come down on both sides, and personally, I favor Michael Bay.

For one thing, when Bay goes all-out on special effects mayhem, it’s generally done in the service of epic action scenes. The Japanese are bombing Pearl Harbor, or the Autobots are fighting the Decepticons, so a whole lotta shit is naturally gonna get blowed up. Compare that to Emmerich, whose calling card is the destruction of national monuments. All well and good, but here’s the difference: With Bay, rampant destruction is a means to an end. Two sides are fighting and stuff gets caught in the crossfire. That’s much more interesting than using destruction as an end in itself, the way Emmerich does.

There are potentially millions of ways for warring factions to level a battlefield, but see one famous landmark get swallowed up by a CGI natural disaster and you’ve basically seen them all. This is why, when Emmerich destroyed the White House by tsunami in 2012, it didn’t pack the same visceral punch as when the White House was destroyed in ID4. We had grown numb to that kind of emotional shortcut, and Hollywood had long since made gratuitous shows of CGI obsolete.

Luckily, it appears that Emmerich finally got the memo. In White House Down, Emmerich stages a takedown of the Oval Office that’s done without any outlandish CGI or fake natural disasters. Granted, there’s plenty of bad CGI when aircraft gets involved to take the White House back, but the takedown itself is done with good old-fashioned elbow grease. Also, guns. Lots of guns with lots of bullets.

…Okay, there’s one improbably huge explosion that’s done as part of the takedown, but we’ll get to that later.

Just to get this out of the way, I should probably start by talking about how this film differs from Olympus Has Fallen earlier this year. To start with, OHF was about an attack from foreign terrorists. In WHD, however, the danger is purely domestic. That’s a very interesting angle to approach this from, especially considering the current proletariat distrust of our government.

Alas, it’s worth remembering that this movie was made by Roland Emmerich, whose last three movies (10,000 BC2012, and Anonymous) all involved crackpot conspiracy theories. And he expected us to take them seriously. Obviously, our antagonists’ reasons for taking over the White House never gel into anything coherent, much less intelligent.

A big reason for that is because we have so many villains in this picture, all of whom are trying to backstab each other as they work to advance their own agendas. There’s Skip Tyler (Jimmi Simpson), who isn’t really given any kind of motivation aside from being an anarchist hacker. There’s Killick (Kevin Rankin), a right-wing sociopath who once blew up a post office that dared to employ black people. We’ve also got Emil Stenz (Jason Clarke), a former CIA assassin who was left by his country to rot in a Middle Eastern prison (if I’m recalling correctly, that is). And they’re all hired by the Head of the Secret Service (Martin Walker, played by James Woods), who’s arranged this whole disaster in an effort to stop our war in the Middle East. How he hoped to achieve peace with a plan that would cause World War III, I have no idea.

All of this stands in stark contrast to the plot of OHF, which was carried out by a highly organized team of militants acting as part of a shared master plan, led by a single clear leader. That’s really what I’m trying to say here.

Before moving on, this seems like a good time to talk about the actors in these villainous roles. Jason Clarke probably does the best job, wonderfully parlaying the cold ferocity of his Zero Dark Thirty performance into a more evil military type. As for James Woods, I was rather forcibly reminded that he was the voice of Hades once upon a time. There are moments when he plays Walker with a similar kind of diabolically deadpan wit, which blended surprisingly well with the pathos of the character. I could take or leave the other two, however.

The other big difference between the movies is that Gerard Butler’s character in OHF was very much a lone wolf. WHD, on the other hand, is more of a “buddy” movie between Channing Tatum and Jamie Foxx. And to be fair, their interplay is one of the best parts in the movie. These two men play characters who go from total strangers to trusted battlefield comrades in the course of two hours, and they do a fine job of selling that arc.

To take a step back, Channing Tatum plays our protagonist, name of John Cale. After serving a few tours in Afghanistan, Cale came back home to a young daughter who had become obsessed with politics (more on her later). Since then, Cale has made it his dream job to get a place in the Secret Service, making his daughter proud by working as a bodyguard for her idol. Cale was able to use some connections to get a job in the Capitol Police, working on the security detail of the House Speaker (Eli Raphelson, played by Richard Jenkins). Unfortunately, when Cale is lucky enough to get an interview with the Secret Service, he’s met with a firm denial. Then again, it certainly didn’t help that the interview was conducted by an old high school friend (Carol Finnerty, played by Maggie Gyllehaal), who is now a special agent in the Secret Service.

Got all that?

I have to give this movie props for giving this character so much development with only a few brief scenes of exposition. The use of a job interview was a particularly clever move, conveying huge amounts of backstory about this character in a way that’s relevant to the plot and allows us to root for this guy we’ve barely met. Also, a lot of this information was told by way of a brilliant scene with Foxx’s character that I won’t spoil here.

Of course, it also helps that this role fit perfectly in Tatum’s wheelhouse. In fact, considering that Tatum is credited as an exec producer here, I wouldn’t be surprised if the role was tailor-made for him. Tatum has a strange and charismatic kind of goofiness about him. It’s easy to like the guy, but it’s also easy to see how he could be an irresponsible fuck-up. These traits are both essential to the character, though of course Tatum’s action chops help a great deal as well.

I must admit how impressive it is to see Tatum come so far in so short a time. If I had been told two years ago that the guy in Haywire would be anchoring his own action movie, I’d have expected a total piece of dreck. Yet he does a passable job of it here. The guy’s still got a lot of growing to do, make no mistake, but I’m suddenly a lot more interested in seeing where his career goes from here.

On the other hand, we’ve got Jamie Foxx, on hand to play the President of the United States. It’s not nearly as awesome as you might expect. To be fair, President James Sawyer does have plenty of backbone and he’ll gladly put his life on the line for his country. The problem, however, is that the character is written in such a way that he has to develop to that point. At the start of the movie, Sawyer is some pacifist intellectual who seems incapable of violence.

That wouldn’t be so bad, except that this is Jamie Foxx. The guy was goddamned Django last year, and he’s going to be a Spider-Man supervillain next year. That’s not to say Foxx isn’t a good enough actor to make the development work, it’s just that this isn’t a good use of your Jamie Foxx. The guy’s become such a towering force of personality that it takes away from the satisfaction of watching his character develop into a badass. It begs the question of why he wasn’t a badass to begin with.

All of that aside, there are two minor areas in which WHD actually manages to surpass OHF. The first is in the child character. In OHF, we had the president’s son, who didn’t really have all that much to do when you get right down to it. Compare that to Cale’s daughter in WHD, who impacts the plot in some very dramatic ways. It certainly helps a great deal that Emily Cale was played by Joey King, who’s slowly been developing quite a resume for herself.

King has already claimed some prestigious roles in two huge blockbuster films so far, with a small yet memorable bit part in The Dark Knight Rises and a prominent voice-over role in Oz the Great and Powerful. This time, however, she really takes center stage. King plays Emily with a perfect mix of desperate courage and pre-teen vulnerability, all without making the character so precocious as to be unbearable. I don’t know if I would call her the next Chloe Moretz, but Joey King is definitely one to watch.

The second big victory of WHD over OHF is in its use of the White House setting. Granted, this film takes place entirely during the day while the previous film was mostly set at night, which makes a huge difference in how the sets are shown. Even so, this movie takes full advantage of its set in ways that OHF had never even dreamed of. Not only does this film make extensive use of the White House’s 200-year history, but it takes us through all the myriad locales within the White House. The action scenes and the narrative wind through the guest rooms, the residences, the basement, the private movie theater, the basketball court, the swimming pool, the kitchens, the south lawn, the press briefing room, the secret underground tunnels that JFK used to smuggle Marilyn Monroe inside (no, seriously), the list goes on and on. It’s really quite remarkable how much they were able to weave into the plot.

However, this means that the movie puts a much greater emphasis on the White House in particular. It’s all about that one little cornerstone of American culture. When it comes to statements about America as a whole, on the other hand, the movie doesn’t really have much to offer. Compare that to OHF, whose uber-patriotism came through clear as a bell.

But of course, all of this is beside the main point: The action. Purely in terms of spectacle, how does this film stack up? On its own merits, it’s not bad. Next to OHF, it loses by a fucking landslide.

For comparison’s sake, let’s think about a scene that the two movies have in common: The takedown of Washington D.C. In WHD, the attack is triggered by what’s more or less a suitcase bomb. And somehow, this bomb is enough to blow up the entire House of Parliament. Horseshit. I may not be a demolitions expert, but I’m pretty sure there’s no explosive on this planet — short of a nuclear weapon — that could cause so much damage with so little.

Compare that to the trigger of OHF: A plane crashing into the Washington Monument. They’re both cataclysmic events, except that one requires significantly less suspension of disbelief. Of course, it also helps that the latter was so much more effective in its camerawork and editing.

By a similar token, the White House in WHD is taken by a couple dozen armed mercenaries. Even with the Head of the Secret Service organizing the whole thing, that takes some heavy suspension of disbelief. That said, at least it’s presented in a way that’s somewhat entertaining. But then there’s OHF.

As a reminder, the antagonists of the previous movie took down the White House with an intricately choreographed operation. That campaign involved vehicular mayhem, scores of heavy artillery, strategically placed double-agents, and a whole lotta bloodshed. That scene involved the full might of the Secret Service and the D.C. Police coming down and getting their own maneuvers used against them. Did it require suspension of disbelief? Hell yeah. But the sequence was staged and shot in such a way that it required significantly less.

What it really comes down to is that unmistakable feeling of getting your ass kicked up and down the theater, and still enjoying the experience. I knew that feeling with OHF, and I didn’t get it from WHD.

The difference, I think, is that WHD is merely a brain-dead movie, while OHF is an intelligently-made brain-dead movie. In the former, the film goes the laziest possible route, conquering the White House with the fewest possible steps that they could get away with. As a result, the sequence feels much smaller and less authentic. There’s a lingering sense that even if this was an inside job, more would be done to defend one of the most secure locations in the world.

In OHF, on the other hand, it’s obvious that a lot more effort was made into contemplating how the White House would be defended from attack, and planning all the various clever ways that the terrorists would subvert those defenses. This gets the whole city involved, which makes for a far more epic presentation, and it also gives the sequence a more genuine feel. It also sets the villains up to be a much greater threat, since the nation’s capitol threw everything they could at the problem and still got thoroughly pwned.

It also bears mentioning that in a side-by-side comparison, the cast of OHF is far and away superior. Channing Tatum’s good, but he can’t hope to be a better testosterone-fueled action hero than Gerard Butler at his A-game. Aaron Eckhardt’s portrayal of the president may have been flawed, but he still carried himself with more dignity than Jamie Foxx ever does here. There’s also Morgan Freeman, whose Secretary of State was far more interesting to watch than his counterpart in Richard Jenkins.

With all of that said, the love interests in both films deserve a closer look. WHD has no less than three possible love interests, and all of them fall flat in some way or another. Rachelle Lefevre is on hand to play Emily’s mother, though the character might have done just as much good if Cale had been widowed instead of merely divorced. Jackie Geary plays a character who clearly has a crush on Cale, though her story arc is given one of the most unceremonious “fuck you” endings I’ve ever seen a character receive. That leaves Maggie Gyllenhaal, who plays a vital role in the proceedings and is heavily implied to be Cale’s one true love interest. Alas, the film cuts out before their romance arc congeals into anything solid.

Granted, the romance arc in OHF was generally useless to the overall plot, but at least that movie committed to it. There was never any doubt as to who Butler’s character was going home with, and the relationship was occasionally used to show a softer side to the character. As such, I’m chalking up another point for OHF.

On a technical level, the film ranges from passable to detrimental. The editing leaves a great amount to be desired, with cuts that tend to be more confusing than anything else. The camerawork is merely adequate; it seems that the filmmakers preferred to convey thrills through the overbearing score than through the visuals. Also, there were a few split-second shots in which the film dramatically slowed down. I found it very distracting.

All told, there’s nothing inherently wrong with White House Down. The actors all give fine performances — especially Tatum, Foxx, King, Clarke, and Woods — and the action is suitably entertaining with enough suspension of disbelief. It’s only real problem is that it came out mere months after Olympus Has Fallen, which did everything that Emmerich tried to do and did it better.
There is absolutely no reason to see this movie when you could be watching Olympus Has Fallen. I’d recommend passing on this movie and waiting for the other one to come out on DVD this August. In the meantime, might I recommend picking up and reading “World War Z?”

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