The fact that there have been in just three months two movies about the takeover and partial destruction of the White House says something about our current paranoid condition. It also says something about the way that Hollywood hits on a certain formula and runs with it, of course. So the appearance of “White House Down” hard on the heels of “Olympus Has Fallen” might cause some potential attendees to mutter, “Not again!” and just stay home.
Too bad, because the current go-round is a much better vehicle for basically the same idea, plot, and outcome. As the hero, veteran hero John Cale, Channing Tatum looks ready to assume the mantle of another one-man gang, John McClain, the character that Bruce Willis has all but copyrighted in the “Die Hard” series. The current villain, again a Secret Service agent, is played with nicely modulated anger by James Woods. (The Secret Service takes a beating in both films: maybe the paranoia is justified?) And director Roland Emmerich, best known for big-budget, end-of-the-world flicks like “Independence Day,” “The Day after Tomorrow,” and “2012,” adds a note of old-fashioned melodrama with a plucky little girl in distress, Cale’s daughter Emily, affectingly portrayed by young Joey King, already a screen veteran at age 14.
She joins a pretty hefty group of adult film names, among them Maggie Gyllenhaal, Richard Jenkins, and, as the President, Jamie Foxx. For the role, Foxx clearly has copied some speech rhythms and character notes from the actual current occupant of the White House. Some of this played for laughs — as when he chomps on Nicorettes — and some for impressiveness — as when he displays his athleticism. And like the real POTUS, he has a great fondness for Lincoln, which the film emphasizes in ways large and small.
Also striking some notes of amazingly coincidental contemporaneity are the inclusion of a rogue former NSA computer geek and a Speaker of the House who is willing to go to any lengths to deny the Prez his agenda. Assorted members of the lunatic right appear among the terrorist thugs, and even the military/industrial complex takes some serious scolding. Indeed, some of the plot looks like it was vetted by the Democratic National Committee.
The story itself is wonderfully predictable, though Emmerich keeps throwing in new twists, a la the “Die Hard” methodology. I suppose whether you think the ending is happy depends upon your political leanings. In any case, screenwriter James Vanderbilt, who has the screenplays for “The Amazing Spider Man” and “Zodiac” on his resume, salts in enough visual humor and one-liners to keep the action scenes from becoming tedious — a welcome change from the run-of-the-mill action flick.
“White House Down” is rated “PG-13” for violence and language, primarily, though it shows a curious restraint in both as, say, “Olympus Has Fallen” does not. At over two hours, it’s a mite too long, but things move along briskly enough that one hardly notices. Now that we are into July and the heart of the Big Blockbuster Season, we can only hope that the rest of the summer provides us with a winner or two; asking for more would be greedy.