2013 delivered two different action films centering on recognizable movie stars rescuing the President of the United States during an attack on the White House. One of them was Olympus has fallen, the first of these two films to be released in theaters and the one that became a huge box office success. Olympus proved lucrative enough to spawn two more sequels. The other White House action movie that year was white house down, a nonstarting box office that drowned in the deluge of blockbusters that graced the summer of 2013. It’s downright a tragedy because white house down isn’t just the better of the two. It’s also the director’s most underrated title Roland Emmerichthe catalog.
In hindsight, white house down is an anomaly in Emmerich’s list of action blockbusters. Typically, this filmmaker launches into world apocalypse films like Independence Day, 2012, or the new movie moon fall. If you give Emmerich a hefty budget, he’s going to blow up every nook and cranny of the earth. During this time, white house down is a die hard pastiche that largely confines its action to its titular location rather than taking the action to multiple continents. The on-screen imagery channels classic 1980s action schlockfest, not natural disasters.
Although it deviates from these blockbuster standards, it is a boon for white house down, as it informs several advantages of the feature that other Emmerich projects, like Two days later, just couldn’t do. On the one hand, the relatively small scope of the story allows the production to emphasize the comic connection between the main men Channing Tatum and Jamie Foxx. Without a barrage of visual effects-laden big-city scenes to lean on, white house down must find pleasure in the simplest and most satisfying things.
In another welcome departure from its director’s blockbuster standards, white house down is not an ubiquitous exercise. Although he’s known for his crowd-pleasing fare, Emmerich’s works are often plagued with tonal issues that torpedo potentially amusing concepts. Something like 10,000 BC was carried away by a morose tone which did not suit a film where people in loincloths rushed after the thunderous steps of mammoths. The same could be said for Two days later, which confused solemn melodrama with gripping drama you could get invested in.
white house down, on the other hand, is full of jokes and light-heartedness. While it doesn’t fall into parody, it isn’t afraid to deliver the kind of serious jokes and silliness you’d expect from an action movie like this. Just look at one of the film’s most memorable moments regarding a previously dweeby White House tour guide. This character concludes his character arc in the third act by cocking a shotgun and bellowing, “Okay people! The tour is over!” Meanwhile, the day and America itself are finally saved by Joey King using her twirling skills on the White House lawn, a development played out without a single blink of an eye to the camera.
Maybe those moments will make you roll your eyes, maybe it will make you rejoice in the uninhibited naivety happening in front of your pupils. Whatever your answer, you can never say that white house down is a tonal slog for sitting down.
Much of the lighthearted fun comes from the surprisingly delicious chemistry between Tatum and Foxx. Modern Hollywood has a bad habit of making mediocre movies like Passengers it just assumes that two famous people will automatically sizzle together. Fortunately, this is not the case with white house down. Tatum and Foxx prove to be a delicious combo, especially in their comedic back and forth that punctuates the details of their respective characters’ personalities. The latter performer is particularly good as a posh president who can poke people in the neck with pens if the occasion calls for it. With such endearing performances, it’s hard not to get carried away by the infectious and fun atmosphere concocted by Tatum and Foxx.
Plus, the duo’s report is yet another way white house down becomes a reference in the world of Emmerich’s filmography. Save for Independence Day, how many films of this man have you taken out of the theater complimenting the performances of the actors? Often, this man’s productions just have flesh-and-blood people reacting to the CG carnage happening right off-screen. In white house down, these same people are the stars of the production, and putting them center stage allows an entertaining dynamic between Tatum and Foxx to flourish.
Speaking of the benefits of dealing with human beings, white house down proves a pleasant deviation from Emmerich’s standards in the way he defines antagonism. Usually a feature of this author creates the concept of impending threats through CG tidal waves coming over the mountains or New York City getting blanketed in snow. These elements can make for some pretty imagery, but they don’t deliver a Hans Gruber or Loki, a distinctly human villain you may love to hate. The human-based enemies in these big disaster movies are usually just government officials who could have wandered in from any other movie.
white house down, meanwhile, provides a barrage of welcome distinctly human adversaries in the form of a group of white supremacists, hackers and other scoundrels, led by James Woods and Jason Clark, the latter playing a diabetic mercenary. This collection of enemies chews up the landscape and provides plenty of entertaining and repulsive people for our heroes to face. Woods particularly excels at playing an energized Secret Service agent. His dialogue deliveries are just drenched in titled anger and Emmerich cleverly keeps the camera focused on this performance rather than letting this main antagonist be overwhelmed by a deluge of CGI mayhem.
Above all, there is a feeling of affection between the characters which makes white house down such a pleasant surprise. Some of Emmerich’s other works, namely 2012, are so caught up in delivering bigger and bigger sequences of disastrous mayhem that humans get lost in all the apocalyptic devastation. Ordinary people exist only to be crushed by buildings, there is no recognition of the human cost of all this chaos. This can make those films’ bloated runtimes a chore. Why should audiences invest in the melodrama of these people if the movie they inhabit is zoning out?
The smaller scale character of white house down, not to mention the fact that the plot is spurred on by a hostage situation, means this movie needs to be aware of the human cost of its action scenes. It doesn’t impinge on the vivid tone of the feature as a whole, but it does mean there’s less detachment between the humans in the frame and the action scenes unfolding around them. Although this and other critical aspects of white house down are largely a departure from what has become standard Roland Emmerich cinema, which is also why this project is both the most underrated and one of the strongest titles in the filmography of this man. Can be considerably more forgettable Olympus has fallen to pretend that?
The successful director has never been one to go small with his films.
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