Sunday, June 30, 2013

Die Hard or Something Like It: WHITE HOUSE DOWN

Jamie Foxx cuts an Obama-ish figure as President Sawyer in White House Down, the second of two Hollywood action films this year to put the Die Hard template in the White House. Unlike Olympus Has Fallen, the terrible spin on this scenario from earlier this year which found an unlikely group of rogue North Koreans simply shooting their way into the building, this picture finds a far more insidious coalition of bad guys with richer and marginally more believable resonance. The president’s under literal attack here by an organized team of villains made up of hawks, Islamophobes, white supremacists, right-wing conspiracy theorists, and threatened corporate interests. They start by quite literally exploding apart the deadlocked legislative branch as a distraction before quickly moving to take over the White House, holding the cabinet secretaries and an unfortunate tour hostage.

But they didn’t count on one of the tourists being an off-duty capitol policeman played by Channing Tatum. He was there with his political junkie 11-year-old daughter (Joey King), but now he’s loose with the president, trying their best to make it out alive and regain control of the country. The script by James Vanderbilt borrows liberally from the Die Hard template, from the crisp setup that quickly moves the everyman lawman and team of villains (Jason Clarke, Jimmi Simpson, and more) into place, to the family member amongst the hostages, to the escalating stakes, time spent clambering up and down elevator shafts, a henchman who likes Beethoven music, and an only sometimes helpful collection of agents, officials and policemen (James Woods, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Richard Jenkins, Lance Reddick, Michael Murphy) communicating via walkie talkies and cell phones. Unfortunately, the sense of destruction feels slightly out of proportion for the rather modest little action film that’s developing.

It’s not as bloody and ugly as Olympus, but seeing thousands of rounds of ammunition expended during a rather silly car chase on the lawn of the White House dulls the impact of the violence. It’s one thing to see the dome on the Capitol Building collapse, an event that feels too real in presentation, but then why back into punches and punchlines then cut away to linger on an unseemly shot of an airplane disintegrating? It’s so often so juvenile and small it feels insensitive to ratchet up the massive damage elsewhere. The stakes often feel very real and personal, but the excessive bombast of it all distracts. But excessive bombast is what director Roland Emmerich is all about. It works in his big splashier disaster movies like 2012 and The Day After Tomorrow and here he proves that he can still scale things back to a more contained set piece when he wants to do so.

But it's hard for him to stay small with a script like this. The film is patently preposterous right down to its literal flag-waving conclusion and Emmerich’s such a straight-faced spectacle showman that it almost works. He blew the whole White House up with one swift alien blast in Independence Day. Now he returns to the scene of the crime to spend over two hours torturing the poor place. Grounding the film is Foxx and Tatum, who keep the ridiculous on some recognizably human terms as they race around the house engaging in an almost-all-business relationship that has time for both bonding over the hardships of fatherhood and firing off the occasional snappy one-liner. They’re charming actors and the chemistry between them is natural, easy, and appealing, which is good, since they spend most of the movie alternately hiding from and shooting back at bad guys together. In a nice touch, Foxx puts on his reading glasses before shooting down his first bad guy. It’s like what might’ve happened if Reginald VelJohnson was stuck in Nakatomi Plaza with Bruce Willis instead of stranded outside.

I liked White House Down best when it gave in to its dumbest, broadest impulses, letting reasonably diverting action or genial banter carry it all along. At one point during the climactic action, a big red countdown clock reads 8 minutes until Very Bad Things happen, but characters scramble around for what felt like easily twice that length while the clock slowly ticks down its eternal seconds. That’s funny in an enjoyable stupid blockbuster way. But every time we get bogged down in the increasingly apocalyptic stakes outside the building, some energy gets sucked out of the plotting. Add to that the constant need to yo-yo Tatum’s daughter in and out of danger and the back half of the film grows increasingly grating and uncomfortable.

Around the 100-minute mark I would’ve been ready to enjoy a cathartic climax, but after another half hour ticks by, I was just ready to leave. I was rolling with the ridiculous, but every time I was asked to take the events seriously, I felt myself sinking in my seat. I did like how the inciting incident of the plot seems to be the president’s proposal of peace in the Middle East, the prospect ironically getting all the baddies riled up, but so much of the film is playing with politics in awkward ways that get blown all out of proportion by the damage on display. A shorter, less trigger-happy version of the film would’ve been better, but at least in its current form it’s still the year’s best Die Hard movie in a year that had an actual Die Hard movie. That’s less of a compliment than it sounds.

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