White House Down is probably going to draw a lot of comparisons to this year’s Olympus Has Fallen, since they’re both about bad guys who seize the Oval Office, but it’s much more fascinating to think about it as a Die Hard remake. I don’t mean in the conventional sense that people use when discussing movies that follow the template of one rogue hero trapped in a building/ship/bus who has to use his own special mix of lethality and humor to take down the enemy. I mean White House Down is essentially a straight-ahead remake of 1988’s Die Hard. There’s an evil hacker who favors lollipops and whose computer work is scored to Beethoven; there’s the way the villains discover that one of their hostages is related to the hero, something they try to exploit to bring him down; there’s, well, the cop trapped in a building with terrorists whose plan isn’t what it seems. It’s almost admirable in its blatant desire to ape the granddaddy of modern action movies, but its similarities are so predictable that watching it makes you realize that director Roland Emmerich and writer James Vanderbilt must view Die Hard as a kind of ur-text for thrillers, and not a movie that used a basic understanding of storytelling to do its job well. In other words, Die Hard isn’t the ultimate form; it’s a story based on an ultimate form. That’s what makes White House Down feel so cheap in the end: it’s like a copy of a copy.
All of which is a shame, because White House Down has more going for it than you might expect from a movie that involves the participants in a car chase doing donuts next to the Rose Garden. Emmerich is a talented mechanic who knows how to assemble the kind of cheeky, fast-paced action movies that defined the 1990s — like his own Independence Day from 1996 — so it makes sense that he was drafted to helm a film that was initially pitched and sold as something “tonally and thematically like Die Hard and Air Force One” (in other words, like a template and its derivative). The film takes time to set up the players, including John Cale (Channing Tatum), an officer with the Capitol Police who wants to join the Secret Service; Cale’s daughter, Emily (Joey King), the kind of annoyingly precocious kid who addresses her father by his first name the way kids only do in movies like this one; Agent Finnerty (Maggie Gyllenhaal), a Secret Service star who initially denies Cale’s application; and Robert Walker (James Woods), who runs the Secret Service. It’s comforting in a way to see a summer action movie move clunkily through character scenes for the first half hour, laying out the pieces on the board before pitting them against each other. It’s a departure from the action style that’s popular now, in which explosions kick in almost immediately after the opening credits and don’t end for two hours. Watching everything, you can feel Emmerich working, and you definitely appreciate what he’s doing. He’s not that dumb.
The problem is, he’s made a dumb movie. White House Down is often amazingly comforting, but that’s not the same as saying it’s good. It’s comforting in the way a fast-food hamburger can be: great for a few seconds, but it sits like a brick for hours. The fleeting pleasures are soon shouted down by regret. Vanderbilt knows how to land a cute punch line, and it’s smart to load the first third of the film with jokes that can help establish character and tone. (As an example of how to strip all humor and personality out of dialogue and render each word as utilitarian and dry as possible, see World War Z.) Yet Emmerich’s too eager to keep playing those cards, so that even when things are supposed to be their most dangerous, there’s a kind of smug disassociation between the narrative and its performers. Cornball jokes and groan-worthy tag lines start flying faster and faster as the story speeds along. You’ll laugh, but not in a good way.
Right on schedule, the bad guys seize the White House, where Cale and his daughter are tagging along on a tour. They wrangle some hostages, but Cale escapes, setting in motion his impromptu plan to rescue his daughter and save the president. The villains’ ultimate goals are revealed to be predicated on a flimsy and awfully broad version of international politics, involving a global peace plan spearheaded by the president and pushback from weapons manufacturers. It’s a little like an 8th-grade version of a Tom Clancy novel, only with Borscht Belt one-liners. It’s as if Emmerich or Vanderbilt wanted to reach for something serious and grand, and they do so both with boyish understanding and a child’s grasp of adult matters. The movie functions much better when Emmerich doesn’t try to reach for intellect that isn’t there.
As is often the case with his movies, Channing Tatum is the best part of the whole thing. He makes a serviceable John McClane surrogate — even his character’s name, John Cale, is an echo of the older hero — thanks to his mix of casual amusement and grace under fire. Jamie Foxx plays the president with a weird swagger, reimagining Obama as somebody who never had to actually grow up that much to run for office. He also gets to stick his head out the window of a moving SUV and shoot a rocket launcher at a fence, though, so maybe you can’t blame him for being silly right along with the movie. His performance gives away the real truth here: nobody’s ever in any real danger, and the most that’s at stake is the chance to make a few puns. When a bad guy glumly ruminates “When did the pen become mightier than the sword?” (a phrase he uses twice in five sentences, to make sure we all heard), it’s just a chance for Foxx to uncap a fountain pen and shout “I choose the pen!” before stabbing the guy in the shoulder. I’m amazed McBain hadn’t used that line already.
Like I said, though, there really is something comforting about White House Down, a comfort that has nothing to do with the fact that the movie itself is pretty bad. Some bad movies are offensive or dull or frustrating; this one’s just harmless and lanky, like a puppy that keeps falling over because it can’t control its energy. It’s dumb and derivative. It’s cheaply shot and peppered with bad effects, weird lighting, and tags so cheesy they seem like they’ve been imported from the 1980s. But for all that, it’s hard to feel anything bad for the movie, if only because it’s the kind of movie designed to be immune to feelings. Liking it and disliking it feel exactly the same, as if they cancel each other, and it’s possible to do both at the exact same time. Maybe that’s the only way out.