Wednesday, July 3, 2013

WHITE HOUSE DOWN - Yippie-ki-yay Mr. President!

"What if THE WEST WING and DIE HARD had a baby?" There's a question I never thought I'd ask, but I really can't think of a more apt description for filmmaker Roland Emmerich's (INDEPENDENCE DAY, 2012) newest effects-filled action film. And honestly, as ludicrous as the premise sounds, as ridiculous as the movie itself is, this unexpected combination of timely political issues and balls-out pyrotechnics makes for not only the best film in Emmerich's career, but also arguably the best riff on the DIE HARD formula since the 1988 original.

Much like last year's surprisingly awesome ABRAHAM LINCOLN: VAMPIRE HUNTER, WHITE HOUSE DOWN is a movie that knows exactly the sort of audience it wants to court, and wastes no time in zeroing in on providing the sort of insane amounts of wish fulfillment that Hollywood is so ideally suited for to said audience. It does so using arguably the single most popular framework in modern action film history (in fact there are reveals and turns that are almost beat-for-beat analogs of the McClane/Gruber feud), but brings with it a well-structured script, a great sense for the well-worn tropes of the genre, and - surprisingly - a palpable sense of restraint from the director.

The film opens with a full half-hour of unbroken character and location work, setting everything in play by first introducing us to the three leads (the two heroes and our antagonist) as they begin their day, then places Capitol Policeman John Cale in the White House for a Secret Service job interview/tour with his daughter the same morning that President Sawyer has just announced a controversial peace proposal with Iran. It's impressive to see this play out, partly because the actors are all diving headlong into some broadly-written but enjoyable roles, but also because the film is deliberately setting up a couple dozen things that will pay off during the second half of the film. Roland Emmerich does this often - the "promise" with the viewer that understands "yes, we both want awesome things to happen, and we'll get there - but first, this has to happen so they can be even MORE awesome."

This is one of the elements that WHITE HOUSE DOWN gets that so many modern action films ignore or have forgotten - seeing something explode is cool and all, but it really has to happen to something we love OR something we hate for it to get the best reaction out of us. Emmerich understands this (there's a reason we humans get worked over so hard during the first 90 minutes of INDEPENDENCE DAY - it makes us crave that final battle for payback, not just spectacle), and he has a great sense for hammering in emotional beats and visual storytelling cues. He's not particularly subtle about it (or anything else, even here - WHITE HOUSE DOWN is restrained compared to 2012 and ID4, but it's by no means understated in its intent), but his sensibilities are ideally-suited to this particular type of movie. The wildly over-the-top sort of action film that originated in the 80's with LETHAL WEAPON and DIE HARD and continued into the 90's with THE ROCK, FACE/OFF, and CON AIR serves as the blueprint here, and Emmerich's on-the-nose approach to pumping out those sorts of "this so silly but ALSO AWESOME!" moments soars here.

Even more suited here is Emmerich's tonal approach, often at odds with his disaster films of a few years back, the cheesy sensibilities and goofy optimism are a perfect fit for this movie. In a time when gritty reboots and strip-mining heroes in the name of "re-imagining for a modern audience" it's refreshing to see a film not ashamed of lionizing once in a while. Not coincidentally, the entire film is an unapologetic work of idealistic fan-fiction for longtime liberals (hence THE WEST WING) in more ways than one, and interestingly the actual threat (milita nuts, disgruntled ex-military types, the military industrial complex, white supremacists) make for a more compelling - and these days, more believable - threat than "It's Russians/North Koreans!" But politics aside, the film is also staunchly patriotic on a macro level, reveling in any chance to remind the viewer of how awesome the dream of America is, and delivering inspiring speeches on hope and ideals vs. material worth. Sometimes delivered directly through the lens of an 11-year-old girl.

Yeah, like I said, not exactly subtle. But characters like Emily Cale (who could have been trite and cliched at best and horrific at worst but ends up stealing the entire damn movie) don't require subtlety so much as wholehearted commitment. And everyone here commits. As Cale, Channing Tatum continues to prove that his leading man chops are the real deal. He earns the "John McClane wifebeater" as a mantle, throwing himself into the role of a father desperate to prove himself to his child. His chemistry with Foxx's Sawyer leaves you genuinely invested in these men and wanting to see more of them. James Woods plays down his usual volatile snarkiness for a tragically wounded villain, accompanied by a wonderful foil in Jason Clarke's (ZERO DARK THIRTY) unhinged ex-Delta Force operative Stenz (I'm a sucker for good bad guy pairings). The rest of the cast is packed to the gills with amazing supporting actors, from Secret Service agent Finnerty (Maggie Gyllenhal) as Cale's support to reluctant Speaker of the House Ralpheson (THE CABIN IN THE WOODS' Richard Jenkins) as Cale's boss, all turning what could have been perfunctory walk-ons into memorable people.

Like the original John McClane outing, there are multiple factions and supporting characters at play vying for position, but unlike Emmerich's previous sprawling ensemble pics, the focus is kept on the single location, allowing the core characters to be playing off each other almost immediately rather than meandering toward each other as the plot dictates (see: ID4). This is again where the genius of the "One guy trapped with the enemy" formula shows through, providing ample opportunities for mayhem through iconic environs, but an immediacy that keeps the tension up because of the tight quarters. To be frank, I'm rather amazed that it took until 2013 for someone to land on "Hey, let's do DIE HARD, but in the White House!" (and this year we got that twice), because even just as a base concept that's a HELL of a lot better than what we got with McClane's last adventure.

As is obvious by now, I really really enjoyed this one. It may not be the popular opinion, but I'd say it's near rivaling IRON MAN 3 as the best movie of the summer so far. It's head-and-shoulders above most "pure" (read: not sci-fi/superhero) action movies to come out in the last several years, featuring exciting action beats that the film carefully builds to and then descends from, rather than just trying for constant deafening escalation (TRANSFORMERS, STAR TREK INTO DARKNESS and MAN OF STEEL, I'm looking at you). The film has real stakes and characters worthy of investing in, and the movie knows exactly when to double down on an emotional beat or to top the last ludicrously entertaining set piece.

Bottom line - this is going into regular rotation for me. Every year I have a tradition of watching INDEPENDENCE DAY on the 4th of July, but WHITE HOUSE DOWN may have just replaced it.

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