WASHINGTON – The hope was that “White House Down” would top “Olympus Has Fallen,” thanks to an experienced White House destroyer in director Roland Emmerich (“Independence Day,” “2012”) and a summer release date that seemed to bode better than the post-Oscar doldrums of its clone.
But rather than outclass “Olympus,” “White House Down” simply repeats it with the same plot and characters that, if not identical, are at least fraternal twins.
Once again, we get a Secret Service wannabe (Channing Tatum instead of Gerard Butler) who visits the White House in a convenient stroke of “wrong place, right time.” A terrorist group (led by Jason Clarke instead of Rick Yune) wages an attack on 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, capturing the president (Jamie Foxx instead of Aaron Eckhart) and accessing nuclear launch codes (this time to destroy the Middle East rather than the U.S.).
Caught in the fire is the Secret Service director (James Woods instead of Angela Bassett), acting President (Michael Murphy instead of Morgan Freeman), a rising national security star (Maggie Gyllenhaal instead of Melissa Leo) and a young kid with guts, this time Tatum’s daughter (Joey King) instead of the president’s son (Finley Jacobsen).
Tatum and Foxx make a funny buddy team, particularly during stunts in an elevator shaft. This should be no surprise, as Tatum scored laughs with Jonah Hill in “21 Jump Street” (2012) and Foxx bantered well with Christoph Waltz in “Django: Unchained” (2012). Individually, the chiseled Tatum makes for a fine action star, offering eye candy to those who recently crowned him People’s “Sexiest Man Alive,” and Foxx makes a charismatic president, even if he can’t believably sell his TV speeches.
James Woods, Maggie Gyllenhaal and Richard Jenkins are consistently reliable, while Jason Clarke ironically shifts from an interrogator of terrorists in “Zero Dark Thirty” (2013) to a domestic terrorist.
Amid all the starpower, the best performance comes from a rather unknown Nicolas Wright, who lends an Ed Helms quality to his White House tour guide, horrified each time a precious White House artifact is destroyed. As Tatum’s intelligent daughter answers his every trivia question, I expected his frustration to explode with Helm’s “Office” trademark: “Rit dit dit doo!” Move along, smarty pants.
Still, the main “characters” remain the famous Washington landmarks caught in fiery CGI explosions. Characters joke about Dupont Circle (i.e. Michael Douglas and Annette Bening in “The American President”). Sweeping helicopter shots showcase the Lincoln Memorial up close and the Old Post Office Pavilion in the distance. We even get patched-up staples, like the Reflecting Pool without the renovation fences, or the Washington Monument without the post-earthquake scaffolding.
For a brief moment, the setup actually works. The opening credits resemble a serious endeavor like Netflix’s “House of Cards” (2012). Tatum’s Secret Service interview refreshingly turns the “good cop, bad cop” device on its head, with the “bad cop” laughing in the background. Even the initial attack feels realistic enough, coming from within, unlike the aerial assault in “Olympus.”
But it all gets very ridiculous very quickly with an insanely-delayed military response, Navy SEAL helicopters swooping under the Chinatown arch and the presidential limo doing doughnuts on the White House lawn with the peace-loving president hanging out the window with a rocket launcher.
“I lost the rocket launcher,” President Jamie Foxx says.
“How do you lose a rocket launcher?!?” Tatum replies.
Screenwriter James Vanderbilt (“Zodiac,” “The Amazing Spider-Man”) understands story structure, but every choice is predictable, with political turncoats you can spot a mile away. He understands theme, but his neocon takeover of the Middle East feels heavy-handed. Most of all, he understands setups and payoffs, but never quite hits the mark. His “pen is mightier than the sword” callback is the epitome of forced dialogue, and the daughter’s flag-waving special talent becomes the most laughable “save the day” callback I’ve ever seen in a movie.
Expect to hear snickers down the stretch, as the movie unintentionally becomes a parody of itself.
Maybe it’s because we’ve seen it all before, not just with “Olympus,” but with a series of “Die Hard” archetypes. The protagonist does his best John McClane, the terrorist mastermind demands walkie-talkie cash like Hans Gruber, his lead henchman thirsts for revenge after the death of a colleague and a computer whiz turns hacking into an art worthy of a symphony.
Or, maybe it’s because Emmerich is too enamored with his own “ID4″ legacy. In case we forgot, the White House tour guide says, “This is the East Wing, this is the West Wing, and this is the part that was blown up in ‘Independence Day.'”
One almost expects Will Smith and Jeff Goldblum to appear on the White House movie theater screen, the installation of which allows the terrorists to gain access to the building. Instead, it plays “Lawrence of Arabia” (1962), a film far more skilled at warning of Western imperialism and tribal mentality.
But the biggest reason “White House Down” fails is the simple fact that, in a post-9/11 world, the destruction of the White House and U.S. Capitol is no longer much fun. The once-hypothetical danger has become horrifically plausible, with a crater in Shanksville, Pa., reminding us that our daily realities have surpassed that which, even 15 years ago, could pass for popcorn escapism.
The above rating is based on a 4-star scale. Follow WTOP Film Critic Jason Fraley on Twitter @AboveTheJFray, read his blog at The Film Spectrum or listen every Friday morning on WTOP Radio 103.5 FM.