It’s said that for a few years after the huge success of the original Die Hard, every action movie idea in Hollywood was pitched as “Die Hard in a…” That 1988 film featured bad guys taking over an L.A. office building until their schemes are bedeviled by coincidentally visiting New York cop Bruce Willis, so for a while it was Die Hard in a hockey rink (Sudden Death), Die Hard on a cruise ship (Speed 2: Cruise Control), Die Hard on a Navy ship (Under Siege), Die Hard on Alcatraz (The Rock) and so on. I once heard that this became so automatic that somebody brought it full circle, and pitched “Die Hard in an office building.”
It’s odd that it’s taken so long to get to Die Hard at the White House, but Hollywood is making up for lost time. Just months after Olympus Has Fallen, we get another action extravaganza about an armed takeover of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, Roland Emmerich’s White House Down. The new film’s imitation of Die Hard is agreeably brazen. It even features an insufferably snide computer hacker, and Beethoven on the soundtrack (the Fifth Symphony here; in Die Hard it was the Ninth).
This time the attackers are a cadre of reactionaries and racists and militarist paranoiacs who despise the charismatic young black President (Jamie Foxx), who’s on the verge of pulling U.S. troops out of the Middle East. The coincidentally visiting cop this time is Channing Tatum, as a member of the Capitol Police at the White House to interview for a gig with the Secret Service. Also present is his politics-geek daughter (Joey King). The two of them manage to join a tour, and about that time D.C. blows up.
Literally. Director Emmerich, as is his wont, seems determined to outdo, in excess, previous actioners of this sort. In some movies, a fiery explosion in the Capitol dome might be the climax; here it’s the appetizer. Airplanes and helicopters plummet from the skies, motorcade vehicles chase each other across the White House lawn spewing bullets and rockets, a fire is set in the Lincoln Bedroom.
The good news is that we aren’t asked take a minute of it seriously. Aside from the fears and hatreds that motivate the attack, I wouldn’t suggest that there’s a single plausible element to this preposterous movie. The zombie epic World War Z, now in theaters, seems much more convincing. Yet somehow White House Down, unlike some of Emmerich’s other films, has a good-natured tone that makes its absurdity fun and infectious, even though, like so many action blockbusters, it’s probably at least twenty minutes overlong. I laughed and rolled my eyes at its corniness throughout, but I wasn’t bored or irritated.
Partly this is due to Emmerich’s over-the-top approach. But it’s also due to the cast, who either ham it up or keep straight faces as required—James Woods hams it up and Maggie Gyllenhaal keeps her face straight, for instance, as Secret Service officials. Jason Clarke is the most rabid of the gunmen, Michael Murphy and Richard Jenkins are in the line of succession, and Nicolas Wright is amusing as the tour guide.
At heart, though, White House Down is a buddy movie, dependent on the connection between the two stars. Fortunately, their personas blend well. Foxx seems sharp and canny, a quick study, while Tatum, proclaimed the Sexiest Man Alive last year by People Magazine, seems sweetly dim as usual. The idea that the fate of the free world is in their hands is simultaneously scary, comforting and funny.