To call “White House Down” the best “Die Hard” movie of this year may not be saying much. The actual franchise addition, “A Good Day to Die Hard,” was a frequently incoherent rehash of what once made those movies endearing, while the similarly-set “Olympus Has Fallen” took down the White House with garish sprays of digital blood and frustratingly dim lighting. Fortunately, “WHD” director Roland Emmerich has two capable leads and a hefty budget in his favor; unfortunately, he and writer James Vanderbilt may have cribbed even more exhaustively from the now 25-year-old Bruce Willis classic.
We have John Cale (Channing Tatum), a D.C. cop looking to join the Secret Service and improve his standing with 11-year-old daughter Emily (Joey King), the kind of kid who insists on calling Dad by his first name so we know that he has some work to do. His ex-wife (Rachelle Lefevre) reminds him that Cale was never there for them; a former flame, Agent Finnerty (Maggie Gyllenhaal), concludes his job interview by reminding him, and us, that he never finishes anything. Might he be able to prove all the women in his life wrong by being the one man to fend off the dozens of terrorists who have come to claim President Sawyer (Jamie Foxx) in the midst of John and Emily’s White House tour?
Let’s put it this way: it takes maybe an hour before Cale is running around 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue in a stained tank top, dodging bullets and exchanging banter with Sawyer, whose own detractors in the wake of a proposed troop withdrawal from the Middle East remind him, and us, that he’s never seen a day of action in his life. Oh, but just they wait until this Commander-in-Chief is wielding a rocket launcher from his bulletproof limousine. Does it get sillier from there? Oh, yes. After all, we’re talking about a movie where a tour guide refers to the White House as “the building famous for being blown up in ‘Independence Day.’”
“ID4” was, of course, directed by Mr. Emmerich, who similarly ravaged the globe in “The Day After Tomorrow” and “2012” after having his way with American history in “The Patriot.” Anyone worried that “WHD” would be a grim exercise in domestic destruction couldn’t be blamed -- the eradication of the Capitol Building and Air Force One can only come off so lightly -- but trust that Emmerich’s touch is as broad as ever, resulting in high-speed chases, low-flying helicopters, hidden bunkers, hidden tunnels, hidden agendas and perhaps the single most risible climactic gesture since a gymnast kicked a velociraptor off a roof in “The Lost World: Jurassic Park.”
With positively Spielbergian beams of light shining in through every possible window, Emmerich’s reverence for all-American derring-do is not just apparent, but insistent throughout. Even more striking, though, is Vanderbilt’s greater reverence for the original “Die Hard.” We have Tatum’s lone hero trying to save an estranged family member; James Woods’ coolly professional ringleader whose plot to rob the Federal Reserve is merely a diversion for Something Bigger; Jason Clarke’s hot-headed henchmen; Gyllenhaal’s outsider trying to navigate the situation’s increasingly macho power plays; King’s suddenly valuable hostage; a snivelling reporter; an especially cocky computer hacker; a failed helicopter approach; a thwarted tank attack...
Then again, the modern-cowboy-thwarting-terrorists rite of passage is well-known by many an action star at this point, from Steven Seagal, Sylvester Stallone, Wesley Snipes, Keanu Reeves and Jean-Claude Van Damme to Harrison Ford in the easily superior “Air Force One,” Tomer Sisley in last year’s “Sleepless Night” and Guy Pearce in “Lockout.” It seems only fair that stud of the moment Tatum gets his turn, and he performs his quip-happy, trigger-happy duties with expected charm and muscle. An advantage over Gerard Butler fulfilling the same role in “Olympus” is the opportunity to team up with Foxx, the script’s equivalent of saddling McClane with Powell in person, albeit with Powell being a considerably fitter man who happens to bear the burden of protecting a nation while decked out in his Air Jordans.
Their nigh-instantaneous camaraderie makes the alternately corny and convoluted routine of the rest a bit easier to take, even as Emmerich makes every effort to supplant intelligence with patriotism. At best, “White House Down” is a sure-fire way to kill two hours, if not countless brain cells, and let me assure you that neither will die softly.
SCORE: 6.5 / 10