One of the more memorable shots of the 1996 space invaders disaster flick "Independence Day" was the moment where an alien spaceship hovers above the White House, fires an energy beam down into the regal structure, and blasts it to smithereens. Since it's been so long since I saw that in theaters with an audience, I can't recall if they gasp or cheered (or both), but that was the moment that the film's director, Roland Emmerich, truly arrived in the public's eye.
Sure, he had previously helmed "Stargate" and Jean-Claude Van Damme's "Universal Soldier," but such destruction was the beginning of the German director becoming something of a latter-day Irwin Allen. And thus the disaster film floodgates were unleashed, resulting in the likes of "Godzilla," "The Day After Tomorrow" and "2012" entertaining the masses with all their cinematic might and fury. Now, Emmerich returns to the White House and attempts to destroy it again in "White House Down."
It's the tale of a Capitol Hill police officer (Channing Tatum) who wants to be a secret service agent and thus heads to the President's house to interview with his former college classmate (Maggie Gyllenhaal), all while dragging his 11-year-old daughter (Joey King) along for the ride, what with her being a huge fan of the current POTUS (Jamie Foxx). But then terrorists (initially led by Jason Clarke) show up, seize the building, take hostages and make various demands, all while the visiting outsider turns out to be the irritating fly in their otherwise streamlined ointment.
Alas, for the staff, residents and everyone else situated at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, this comes at a bad time as they've just fixed up the place after director Antoine Fuqua also laid waste to it during the quite similar scenario of March's "Olympus Has Fallen." While the two "Let's take over the Oval Office" flicks might have the Department of Homeland Security a bit concerned with such focus on seizing and overthrowing the President, they need to realize this is yet the latest example of a story being pitched in Hollywood a few years back and competing studios jumping into the fray to see who can get their version released first.
Thus, "WHD" isn't a blatant rip-off" of "OHF" -- as some ignorant people have been claiming -- as both likely gestated around the same time and some release jockeying put this one into the more prime mid-summer slot. That said, being second out of the gate could potentially prove troublesome if audiences figure they've already seen this story this year. Regardless of the timing, both are blatant copycat versions of "Die Hard," and while neither is as good as that action masterpiece, they're somewhat different cinematic beasts despite the similar plotlines.
While "OHF" was pretty much a straight, no-nonsense action flick with little to draw in the viewer aside from the visual mayhem, this offering is more akin to McTiernan's 25-year-old (!) flick in that it throws in liberal doses of comic relief and humor to off-set all of the bullets flying and bodies falling. Best of all, it doesn't take itself too seriously. And thus it gives the viewer the old "nudge, nudge, wink, wink" elbow to the ribs while reassuring everyone that it knows it's dumb, over-the-top and shouldn't be taken seriously.
That said, it does contain some scathing if unoriginal and mostly superficial observations of the power jockeying that goes on in and around U.S. Government politics, especially as they're tied to the military industrial complex. While some of that gets a bit too far-fetched in terms of which insider is doing what to move up the ladder and keep their coffers filled, the politicians as bad guys angle will surely please a lot of the film's potential viewing constituents.
And unlike "OHF," this version features an African-American president who isn't above getting down and dirty while dealing with the bad guys, especially once he loses the suit loafers and dons some footwear more appropriate for all of the running around that follows. Foxx is fun in that role, bringing enough dignity and far-reaching goals to the character to make him seem real enough (and likely make the current POTUS nudge others while stating that's how he views himself behind the scenes).
As the hero, Tatum is good in the role, bringing both the believable physicality but also needed vulnerability to the character to make him sympathetic to those watching his travails. Much of the latter stems from him needing to find and rescue his young daughter (King is terrific as the brainy, trivia spewing kid who also has, at times, a defiant backbone made of steel) who's elsewhere in the building when the takeover occurs.
The film, like its earlier predecessor, still falls short of the original "Die Hard" in terms of a charismatic villain, although the gang here -- if still modeled somewhat after those who appeared battling Mr. Willis so long ago -- are more "fun" to watch than the North Korean baddies in "OHF." And Maggie Gyllenhaal sort of, kind of plays the Reginald VelJohnson bit from "DH" as the eyes and ears trying to help the protag from the outside.
I'm sure the film will have its share of detractors who will find fault with all of those similarities and for following on the coattails of "Olympus." Had it been as humorless and lacking zest like that mediocre film, I probably would have joined that chorus. But since it knows it's nothing but summer popcorn fair with lots of butter and especially cheese liberally sprinkled all over it, I found those and other issues fairly easy to gloss over.
And thus the film turns out to be a fairly fun and entertaining -- if really, really violent for something sporting a PG-13 rating -- diversion that has you rooting for the good guy to save the day. And maybe even for the White House to take another beating like only Mr. Emmerich can deliver. Turn off your brain and you may just enjoy watching "White House Down" as much as I did. It rates as a 6.5 out of 10.