Remain calm, no, you’re not experiencing déjà vu, you didn’t see this movie months ago. It’s one of those times where, like with Armageddon and Deep Impact, Antz and A Bug’s Life and others, very similar movies just happen to come out close to each other. In this case, it’s a pair of action movies with the basic premise of “let’s do Die Hard, but in the White House”. Earlier this year we had Gerard Butler John McClane his way through Olympus Has Fallen, now it’s Channing Tatum’s turn in Roland Emmerich‘s White House Down. Whereas Olympus was a very grim take on the concept, WHD is far more fun, and does a lot to elevate itself from being just Air Force One on the ground.
Capitol police officer John Cale (Tatum) is taking a tour of the White House after an interview for President Sawyer’s (Jamie Foxx) secret service detail. While there, an explosion rocks the Capitol Building acting as a diversion for an armed invasion of the White House, with the help of a traitor on the inside. Soon Cale is the only thing on the scene standing between the hostage takers and the President. What really complicates matters is that Cale’s daughter Emily (Joey King) was on that tour with him…
In terms of comparing this to Olympus, while there is a lot of similarity between the two film’s set up, there’s actually a lot to set films apart. The two biggest ones though being matters of tone and politics. Olympus’ tone was overly solemn, so much so it just made the violence and action on display really uncomfortable to watch, whereas WHD has far more levity to it, telling a serious but fun story. Also, for Olympus’ bad guys they went with the old action movie standby of eeeee-vil foreigners, in that case North Koreans, which in this day and age leaves a nasty taste in the mouth. WHD is actually more clever in that it’s antagonists are home grown, a conspiracy of right wing survivalists, militia, white supremacists, ex-soldiers/mercenaries, and corrupt politicians funded by military industrial contractors. As such, there’s much more relevance to Obama era America here. It’s a far from subtle message, but one that’s far more in key with what’s actually going on today. In fact, one can argue (and get into arguments) that Olympus is more a conservative movie, whereas WHD is very liberal and proud of it. Mind, that was obvious from the fact that they’re not even trying to pretend that Jamie Foxx’s President isn’t just Obama in all bar name.
Of course the other big point of comparison will be to Die Hard. It’s not hard to spot the influence, even down to the lead being a cop named John with family issues who wears a white vest for a lot of it. But the film does plenty to establish its own identity, partially by learning one important lesson. Die Hard was quite a funny film, with a very dry sense of humour, something that WHD has adopted well. The script from James Vanderbilt, as well as the political edge, has a lot of well placed laughs in there, all character based and not undermining the action or tension. There’re a lot of call-back gags, with a lot of minor lines and points bought up early on coming back in very satisfying ways. What’s more, these moments include little character touches that help give the cast that bit more depth than the stock archetypes these sorts of films are often populated with. It’s good to see a film that’s not afraid to start slow, giving an opening act with plenty of character build-up as well as letting the audience know the geography of the location before the disaster strikes.
All this is bought across with excellent production. Emmerich has always been good at big scale action films (there’s a nice reference to Independence Day in here), and this is no exception. As ludicrous as the scenes get (there’s a limousine vs. mini-gun chase at one point), they are all shot well, have just the right pacing and it’s easy to get swept up in them. What’s particularly impressive is the fact that even though events seldom leaves the grounds of the White House, there’s still a huge amount of variety of action and locations. Emmerich also knows when to use subtlety; one main antagonist is first shown making his intentions clear not from loading a gun or acting suspicious, but from a very minor but symbolic act without words. All this is pulled off with a strong cast of capable character actors, something Emmerich’s movies also have in common. Of particular note would be Channing Tatum’s highly likeable lead, with him and Jamie Foxx having the right buddy movie chemistry, and the always-dependable James Woods.
It’s a shame that Olympus has Fallen beat White House Down to release and stole some of its thunder, as the latter is by far the better film. The tone is far more enjoyable, the characters better acted and fleshed out, the script has some real brains to it, and the action is far more memorable. Away from that comparison, the film stands on its own merits very well, being knowingly silly without descending into self-parody, and for having a braver political message than many would expect. Sure, it’s still derivative of Die Hard, but it’s more enjoyable and a lot truer to the spirit of it than the latest sequels were. It’s big, cheesy, utterly ludicrous, but we wouldn’t have it any other way.