Friday, July 5, 2013

Yesterday Was Our Independence Day!

I admit that I make mistakes. I generally post reviews in the order in which I see them. It makes things easier to keep track of, and even if I'm backed up and can't review a movie for several days, I have some way of pacing my writing. The only exceptions are my Open Letters Monthly posts, which are almost always reviewed upon my watching them and don't get in line behind the rest. That being said, yesterday I reviewed the independent film The Bling Ring, about a bunch of kids who stole from rich celebrities. Realizing now that yesterday was July 4'th, how could I completely miss the obvious and not review the most patriotic film in theaters right now, White House Down?

The second of two "terrorists take over the White House" movies this year (the first was March's mediocre Olympus Has Fallen), White House Down has some serious advantages over Antoine Fuqua's strikingly similar Spring effort. For one, this film is from director Roland Emmerich, who before this has already blown up the building at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue (Independence Day) and crashed a tsunami into it for good measure (2012). It's safe to say that if anybody knows how to tell a story in which a paramilitary group (led by an excellent Jason Clarke) breaks into the White House to capture President James Sawyer (Jamie Foxx) and take a number of others hostage, while on the outside the public can only watch in horror. The country's only hope? Failed Secret Service applicant John Cale (Channing Tatum), a former soldier and present police officer who had tried for the job to impress his estranged, politically-inspired daughter Emily (Joey King). Now, with Emily numbered along with the hostages and the President's life in his hands, John must find a way to help Sawyer escape while also rescuing his daughter. Oh, yes, and stopping a global terror plot that threatens to derail the President's Middle East peace offer. So, no pressure.
This is the man who will save the planet.
Surprisingly for a Roland Emmerich film, however, the strongest aspect of the movie might be the casting. When Olympus Has Fallen came out, it's only strength was a cast headlined by Gerard Butler, Aaron Eckhart and Morgan Freeman. It was an excellent collection of actors who almost allowed that title to rise above it's idiotic story, but White House Down offers just as strong a group, if not better, led by the charismatic pairing of Tatum and Foxx. Tatum has seen a huge upswing in his career after an excellent 2012, and continues that trend here as an everyman who finds himself in an impossible situation. Some critics have taken to calling White House Down "Die Hard in the White House", and on more than one front they'd be right, as there's plenty of common ground between Cale and franchise favorite John McClane. It's obvious that Emmerich was inspired by that series, including many references and Easter Eggs hinting at his love of all things Die Hard. But that would mean nothing if Tatum couldn't live up to the comparison, and he does so with gusto, matching up nicely with the A-level 80's action star in physicality, humor and overall acting ability (not to mention his white tank top). In fact, the only thing missing from Tatum's arsenal is a witty catchphrase, so essential to McClane's sustained survival over the years. Still, it's been a long time since Tatum was a dry portion of an underwhelming GI Joe movie, and he shows here that he's not taking any steps backward anytime soon. Foxx as well shows his versatility, and while his character doesn't exactly speak to the power of the Presidency that we've come to expect from men such as Eckhart, Bill Pullman or Harrison Ford, he comes darned close, and even makes up for any weaknesses thanks to taking part in the action and an easy back-and-forth with Tatum. The cast is handily rounded out by government types (Maggie Gyllenhaal, Richard Jenkins, Lance Reddick) and villains (Clarke, Jimmi Simpson, James Woods), all of whom play cliched-enough parts but who are talented enough to overcome that deficit.
The one in the middle will have the best career.
But while the film focuses on Cale and Sawyer and they're attempts to evade capture, it's young Joey King who steals the spotlight. You might remember her wonderful appearance as the China Doll in the otherwise-uninspired Oz the Great and Powerful, and here the precocious kid becomes the pro-American heart of the movie. What could have been a throwaway part becomes arguably the strongest role in the entire film, and an actress who has had a slightly under-the-radar career the past decade is looking to perhaps be one of Hollywood's biggest stars by the end of the next. If 2013 is any indication (Oz, White House Down and soon The Conjuring), she's well on her way.
That's going to take time to clean up.
Beyond acting, though, there's plenty of action in White House Down, thanks especially to Emmerich's experience in blowing stuff up and the significantly larger budget he puts to use. There's no doubt that this film feels much smaller in scale to his past works (even his Shakespeare conspiracy Anonymous had an epic quality to it), but that doesn't mean things won't explode in spectacular fashion when those situations are called upon. Explosions are loud, gunfire is constant, vistas are gorgeous, and unlike the ultra-violent Fuqua film, you never get the feeling that the director is upping the violence just because he's going for shock value. There might be tons of unnecessary violence in this movie, but never is it dull or completely without reason (the opposite of Man of Steel). Emmerich is of course a master of this particular craft, and his movie ripples with aftershocks from every explosive moment, keeping the film moving forward and the audience members on the edge of their seats
Just don't get on his bad side.
And while the story itself is quite dry and predictable (partly because this has been done before, partly because patriotism won't allow certain events to occur in a Hollywood script), the script never overtly preaches its allegiances or stretches itself beyond it's capabilities. It's a simple a popcorn film that happens to take place at the White House, and places Tatum's career firmly on trajectory to emulate that of Bruce Willis in his heyday. It's a lot of fun, and if studios were smart they'd plug Tatum right back in the hole and build a franchise around this character, as there's plenty of growth to be had. It would be way more fun than a continuation of the Die Hard series, whose recent trip to Russia was a mission to forget. White House Down, meanwhile, is an excellent way to spend a couple of hours this Independence Day weekend, and I just wish I'd thought to tell you that yesterday.

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