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Movie Review: White House Down (2013)


We all knew it was coming, so let’s not pretend to be surprised to see another film about terrorists attacking the White House. Less than four months after Olympus Has Fallen, we now have White House Down, which has basically the same premise and even some of the same plot points and characters.

But is it better?

It probably should have been. Olympus Has Fallen was made for US$70m, while White House Down had more than double that budget with US$150m. Olympus Has Fallen starred Gerard Butler as the hero and Aaron Eckhart as the president, while White House Down features Channing Tatum and Jamie Foxx — a closer race won by the latter duo because of their wider recognition and appeal. Lastly, Olympus Has Fallen was directed by Antoine Fuqua, known more for gritty crime dramas like Training Day and Brooklyn’s Finest, while White House Down has Roland Emerich, who has more experience with epic, special effects-laden blockbusters like Independence Day, The Day After Tomorrow and 2012. Take those factors into consideration and White House Down looked like the more promising film — on paper.

That said, I prefer Olympus Has Fallen, and by a not insignificant margin. All things considered, it’s just better. More action packed, less ambitious and less pretentious. Olympus Has Fallen knew its limitations and stuck to its “Die Hard in the White House” routine, whereas White House Down wanted to be more diverse than just an enjoyable popcorn movie but stretched itself thin by trying too hard.

The plot is straightforward: Channing Tatum plays a capable ex-military guy who wants to get into the Secret Service. His daughter is a White House geek for some reason and they visit the White House on a day where terrorists attack and get a hold of the president, Jamie Foxx. Guess who is the only man that can save the day?

For the most part, White House Down is a perfectly adequate. Tatum is a fine action hero who appears more out of his depth than Butler was in Olympus Has Fallen, making him also more vulnerable. The majority of the action sequences are explosive and creative, though the attempts at mixing them with humour don’t always turn out effective.

My first problem with the film is the casting. As I said, Tatum can do action, but he can’t act. Whenever he’s not running around and has to engage in a conversation he becomes silly. The jokes and one-liners that come out of his mouth feel flat and forced. I like him but I hate him. I have complex feelings for this man.

Even worse than Tatum is Jamie Foxx. He may be an Oscar winner, but he’s not POTUS material. Most of the time he looks like he’s about to break into a rap or start trying to sell me something, especially when he’s talking politics. He’s just 50 shades of wrong for this role. Worse still, he has a much bigger role than Aaron Eckhart in Olympus Has Fallen so we are constantly reminded of how wrong he is for this film.

But hey, at least he had fairly good chemistry with Tatum.

As for the villain, Aussie Jason Clark — he’s good, but the character’s not terribly interesting. Maggie Gyllenhaal is not bad, Richard Jenkins is pretty good, and James Woods is excellent — but when the two leads don’t work the best supporting cast in the world isn’t going to be enough.

Another issue I had with the film was the lack of believability and logic. When I reviewed Olympus Has Fallen I noted how outrageous it was, but at the same time it passed my smell test because there was so much stuff happening that I wasn’t given enough time to process my scepticism. I kept thinking, “I guess that could work.”

With White House Down, however, I kept thinking, “Well that was too easy.” And it did seem too easy how a few guys, who clearly aren’t that skilled because they can’t even take down Channing Tatum, could take control of the White House just like that, and then for the rest of the US government to just sit around and do basically nothing for almost the rest of the film? Often I found myself asking, “Couldn’t they hear that?” or “Surely they should have felt that explosion?” My smell test was severely challenged.

I sound harsh, but that’s only because I’m placing White House Down side by side with Olympus Has Fallen, which I enjoyed more. There are positive elements to White House Down, including a few spectacular set pieces on the White House lawn and the aerial scenes with the helicopters. Some of the humour worked, and despite the excessive running time of 137 minutes, I did find most of the film engaging.

But it was still the inferior of the two White House films this year.

3 stars out of 5

PS: It’s not uncommon for Hollywood studios to green light a similar idea at the same time. The most recent in my memory being Mirror Mirror and Snow White and the Huntsman last year and No Strings Attached and Friends With Benefits in 2011. And of course, there was Deep Impact and Armageddon in 1998. Strangely, the film that came out second usually did just as good if not better than the first. Doesn’t look like that will be the case here.

Movie Review: Olympus Has Fallen (2013)


Olympus Has Fallen has been called “Die Hard in the White House”, and for once this description is apt. Of course, it’s nowhere near as good as (what I believe is) the greatest action movie of all time, but all things considered it’s about as good as you could reasonably hope for given the insanity of its central idea — the White House getting taken over by terrorists.

Gerard Butler plays Mike Banning, a former Secret Service agent who gets reassigned to a desk job after a tragic accident. The South Korean president visits and somehow the White House gets overrun by a mysterious terrorist. The US president, played by Aaron Eckhart, is held hostage, and Banning becomes the only man who can save him — and the world!

The premise is as corny as described, but to be honest I didn’t find it all that hard to swallow, thanks to director Antoine Fuqua (Training Day, Shooter), the man with the coolest surname in Hollywood. Fuqua doesn’t make Olympus Has Fallen realistic (that’s impossible), but he allows us to sufficiently suspend disbelief through clever misdirection and never giving the audience time to think about the plot’s deficiencies by bombarding them with non-stop, blazing action. I just kept thinking, “Yeah, that could happen,” and went along for the ride.

Contrast that with another film I reviewed recently, Red Dawn, also about a foreign invasion of the United States (and one of the worst movies of 2012), and you too will appreciate Fuqua’s supreme filmmaking skills. Though both films have lots of guns and explosions and Americanism, Red Dawn bored me to tears, whereas Olympus Has Fallen had me mesmerised.

The film essentially copies the Die Hard template but ups the stakes about a hundred fold. A capable dude caught in a situation he didn’t expect to be in — but instead of a commercial building you have the White-freaking-House. One man against a whole army of badasses. A mysterious and brutal villain determined to weed him out. Epic gun fights, skilful hand-to-hand combat, exploding helicopters, falling from high places, sceptical allies on the outside, no friends on the inside. Awesomeness.

I’ve never really liked Butler outside of 300,  but here he makes an excellent Secret Service guy because he looks the part. Aaron Eckhart won’t be remembered as one of the best on-screen presidents, but he’s certainly not one of the worst either. He doesn’t get to do a whole lot in this film but he makes the best of what he’s got.

The rest of the supporting cast is stellar. As usual, there is the omnipresent Morgan Freeman in the type of role we have seen too many times; Angela Bassett and Robert Forster as anxious government officials; Aussie Radha Mitchell as the wife; Ashley Judd as the First Lady; and Melissa Leo — the standout — as the feisty secretary of defense.

The weak link was Dylan McDermott, another ex-Secret Service guy. It was probably more how the character was written than his acting, but he came across as totally unconvincing and lacking in personality. His story arc was also poorly conceived and concluded. Just crap.

Also crap is some of the pitfalls of the action film that Fuqua just couldn’t avoid, such as blessing our hero with obvious insights that somehow escape the common man (and all of the president’s staff), the usual America “f*%k yeah” moments, as well as the the odd annoying cliche. I also found it strange that a number of the more interesting plot points were either not explored or wrapped up prematurely. I can’t go into details without divulging them, but those who have seen the film will have an idea.

Nonetheless, Olympus Has Fallen turned out to be far better than I expected. Stylish, explosive and rarely a dull moment, it’s the action film that Die Hard 5 could have and should have been (instead of that silly Russian story). Actually, it would have been a pretty good premise for a 24 movie too, if they ever decide to make one. This is a movie I would definitely keep watching if I happen to stumble across it on TV in a couple of years.

4 stars out of 5!

PS: One of the best decisions the producers made was to make this a R-rated film (MA15+ in Australia), which allowed all the violence it needed to be effective. It will be interesting to see what type of film White House Down (which looks like exactly the same film except with Channing Tatum and Jamie Foxx), set for release in the summer, will be with what is expected to be a tamer PG-13 rating. My guess is it won’t be as good, but you never know with Roland Emmerich (Independence Day, The Day After Tomorrow) at the helm.