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David Poland

By David Poland

Review-ish: White House Down


Back when Die Hard was just Die Hard, Fall 1988 and the years to come were full of “Die Hard in a…” Die Hard 2, as I recall, like most of the classic’s comedy/thriller’s sequels, started as some other kind of airport-based scenario and became “Die Hard At An Airport” aka Die Hard 2.

And now, 24 years later, Die Hard In The White House, aka White House Down, complete with the hero ending up running around in a wife-beater, arrives in the midst of one of the most literally explosive summers in movie history. They added a precocious little girl, filling in for the ex-wife (who eventually shows up for a mostly irrelevant cameo). And there is a uniquely 21st century Defiant Ones element, as the white guy in the wife-beater teams up with the President of the United States and neither really even acknowledges race as an issue… a choice I really love, actually.

The only thing close to a nod to race—and it barely is a nod—is Jamie Foxx’s President Sawyer choosing basketball shoes to run from the bad guys. And really, the beat has nothing at all to do with race… but if there was nothing there, would they have included it? Going back to Die Hard, it was kind of breakthrough in its depiction of race in 1988, as Reginald VelJohnson and Clarence Gilyard Jr. could, on the surface, just as well have been white, but were not, and got a chance to be heroic, if comedic. They also balanced, subtly, the blondie bad guys of the film.

Believe it or not, this was an unusual move back then. We had Eddie Murphy in leads and we had seen Danny Glover in a co-lead in Lethal Weapon, but there was a dearth of actors of color in top supporting roles. It was more like Ernie Hudson as one of the Ghostbusters, where he was the fourth guy… kind of on the edges. Anyway… this conversation is a bit hair-splitting, but I really remember how refreshing the Die Hard duo were in an era when the joke was always that the guy running the police squad was a black, angry man in 70s TV. (Larry B. Scott was one exception to the rule, appearing in both Revenge of The Nerds and The Karate Kid in 1984 and Space Camp in 1986, in good color-blind character roles.)

Boy did I digress…

Anyway… White House Down is fun.

Is it a GREAT movie? No.

Will it be the best movie of this summer? No.

But I loved going back to the days before John McClane was hanging off the wing of a fighter jet like it was a normal action event in his life. By the time Roland Emmerich managed to have a car chase while never leaving the White House grounds, I was just plain enjoying myself.

I hear that some critics HATE the film. And so it goes. I don’t see anything about this film that earns an emotion as deep as hatred.

What I do see is a team that is just pulling out all the genre stops and delivering classic light summer fare. It’s not going to break records. It’s not going to change the face of cinema. It’s not as good as Die Hard and certainly not as fresh as DH was when it first arrived. But if a bunch of people decided we’d all go to the movies and they chose this… I’d not only go, but I would feel pretty good that no one was going to be aggravated by the choice.

Is shaved ice with syrup on the sidewalk as “good” as a chocolate souffle from a master baker? No. But when the sun is hot and the cold ice and sweet syrup hit your tongue, it makes you smile. Sometimes that’s the best thing of all.

I smiled all the way through White House Down, even as I charted every cliché, potential and avoided, anticipated the gags as they came, and maintaining a sense of déjà vu throughout the running time. I even ended up being surprised by some of the twists.

(And for the record, that is what I am hoping for with Pacific Rim and The Lone Ranger, too. If they are just great Saturday movie serial entertainment, I will be very happy. And if they are more, all the better.)

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43 Responses to “Review-ish: White House Down”

  1. chris says:

    I thought the tennis shoes were included because he was wearing a suit and the dress shoes would be a more natural pairing but he re-thought and realized tennies would be more appropriate for running from bad guys.

  2. David Poland says:

    Yes, Chris. That was the text.

  3. chris says:

    Yes, David. I don’t think there is a race subtext.

  4. Joe Leydon says:

    They weren’t just “tennis shoes.” They were Jordans — and the brand name was used as a wink-wink punchline. Make of that what you will. BTW: Agree with David — the movie is a thoroughly pleasant surprise, with a welcome touch of tongue-in-cheekiness.

  5. bjk says:

    What was meant in the scene when both men where getting into suv(or whatever it was, so fast i did not notice) when channing asked fox why he was getting in the back. Was that, I am used to it because he meant he was use to it because he “made out” in the back seat. It could not possibly be because of a racial thing, was it???

  6. Hallick says:

    He’s playing a president, bjk. They usually don’t call shotgun.

  7. Hallick says:

    After watching it the other night on TV, I’m firmly of the opinion that “Independence Day” is kind of a summer blockbuster classic. And damn, there’s so much good casting in that thing. Jeff Goldblum kills it, Will Smith back when he was fun, and I hadn’t seen James Rebhorn in a movie in forever.

  8. Joe Leydon says:

    Hallick: And then there’s Bill Pullman as one of the best movie Presidents of all time. Espcially when he goes all Henry V in his big rally-the-troops speech (which, judging from the trailers, is mimicked in Pacific Rim).

  9. Shane says:

    Just goes to show how far movie quality has dropped that Independence Day now looks like a classic. That big speech that Joe mentions has now become a classic movie scene. At the time of release it was greeted with howls of laughter. It’s still awful. Emmerich and Devlin were the kurtzman and Orci of their day. I’ll never forgive them for the inane comedy antics of ID4 after one of the best trailers ever.
    Still, since every big movie this year has left me angry at the state of movie making ill give this a shot. At the very least Emmerich knows how to put a film together.

  10. LexG says:

    “Shane” sounds like a fun guy

  11. Spacesheik says:

    I liked ‘Olympus’ – how does this one compare? I liked the R rated mayhem & great cast (Morgan Freeman, Aaron Eckhart, Angela Bassett etc) – I doubt anyone in ‘WHD’ can steal the flick and command the screen like Melissa Leo’s ballsy Secretary of Defense turn in ‘Olympus.’

    The only issue I had with ‘Olympus’ was the spotty CGI but overall it was a great ride.

  12. palmtree says:

    As I remember it, ID4 was an instant summer classic, warts and all.

  13. anghus says:

    “Back when Die Hard was just Die Hard, Fall 1998”

    1988 maybe?

    “Emmerich and Devlin were the kurtzman and Orci of their day.”

    Shane for the win.

  14. hcat says:

    ‘ I’ll never forgive them for the inane comedy antics of ID4 after one of the best trailers ever.’

    Wasn’t the trailer mostly just stuff exploding, and then Pullman’s speech? I think the film delivered pretty much exaclty what was promised.

    I was working at a theater in college when this came out and yes people went apeshit for it. Probably the biggest response to a movie we played in the three years I was there, even better than Twister a few months earlier which played like gangbusters in our midwest college town. Hayseeds who lived in the middle of nowhere packed up their families in trucks and traveled for miles to see these two films.

    Funny that David mentioned that Emmerich didn’t feel the need to address any racial differences since what I remember most about ID4 is stopping after work to buy a pack of smokes and guy in front of me in line raving about how great the movie was, noticing my work polo and striking up a conversation on how spectacular the movie was. He kept mentioning Smith the most, and how impressed he was that not only did they decide to cast a black actor in the role, but didn’t it didn’t feel like they changed the script around one bit when they did.

  15. Sam says:

    The ID4 trailer was “just stuff exploding,” absolutely. But whereas trailers like that now are commonplace, I remember it being jawdropping at the time. CGI was still relatively new — Jurassic Park’s dinosaurs, from just a few years before, were transcendent despite only featuring in, IIRC, 8 minutes of the film.

    A couple of months prior, the Twister trailer had staggered everyone with its wild, visceral destruction and the flying cow. That was the first time I remember seeing a trailer have a stinger — the final shocking beat after the credits, followed by an abrupt cut to black. The ID4 trailer? Even more epic and spectacular.

    I’m trying to paint a picture of how new and fresh sprawling CGI destruction looked in the mid-90s. Now, we see a trailer after that mold, and lots of us get cautious or even cynical. When the movie turns out to be a B-movie with an A-movie budget, we’re not surprised.

    But it was Twister and ID4 that conditioned us to expect that. You can look back at those trailers now and say, “Hey, obviously these movies are cheesy,” but back then it was not so obvious.

  16. christian says:

    Every big film trailer today ends with an obvious and generic “some random thing flying straight at the camera” usually a chopper or a beast roar.

  17. hcat says:

    First stinger I recall was a few years earlier on Alien3, that bit with the alien right up next to ripley sloooowly extending its jaw. But yes on the twister teaser we would go into the theater to watch everyone duck at the tire going through the windsheild (which ended up not even being in the movie).

    I am pretty sure almost all of ID4 was practical effects and models, not CGI.

  18. Joe Leydon says:

    I vaguely recall that around the time ID4 came out, Emmerich said he deliberately avoided casting “stars” in lead roles, because he wanted to keep the audience off-balance, and make them think that, at any given moment, anyone might get killed. And he was right. Hard to remember this now, but at the time, Will Smith was at a point in his career where, yeah, they might have bumped him off three-quarters of the way through the flick.

    I recall much more clearly how vulnerable a blue-collar sort of hero Bruce Willis seemed in the first Die Hard. Not a superman at all — indeed, someone who at one point seriously says, “Oh God! Please don’t let me die!” He was playing for laughs but, at the same time, he also was playing for keeps. Channing Tatum brings a hint of that to White House Down.

  19. leahnz says:

    fwiw sam is right, independance day marked the beginning of the CGI revolution proper with extensive use of compositing in the visual effects – ‘young sherlock holmes’ i think is cited as the first movie using rudimentary compositing to create the knight (was it a knight?) that comes to life but it was cameron’s water tentacle in the abyss in ’89 and then the ‘liquid metal’ t-1000 in T2 (91) that really started the CGI revolution, Jurassic Park in ’93 was the next wave with the terrific use of compositing (with winston’s animatronics) to create the dynos, then ‘independance day’ in ’96 marked the start of the full-fledged CGI blockbuster (which of course compared to today’s CGI fests probably had only about a tenth of the digital compositing/effects shots) and then Titanic a year later carried the baton, the success of which probably helped to solidify composited effects as a mainstay of big budget film-making. it also might be worth noting that ‘heavenly creatures’ in ’94 likewise created quite a buzz with its use of CGI, as the seed of what has grown into the weta digital empire.

  20. palmtree says:

    Does no one remember the impact ID4 had? I mean, it MADE Will Smith a viable star. After it came out, everyone was just like Will Smith this and that. Before this he was a sitcom star and a rapper…game changer. Seriously, (and it’s really weird to be having an old man moment for a movie that came out only 20 years ago), but it feels like some of you are looking back at this film like it was a minor blip in terms of summer movies. It was the turning point for Will Smith. It upped the ante on summer spectacle. And it was a big hit among big hits at the time.

    Now, you damn whippersnappers get off my lawn!

  21. brack says:

    “I don’t see anything about this film that earns an emotion as deep as hatred.”

    The president is black, again!?!? How awful!

  22. Triple Option says:

    ID4 was a great trailer. I’d argue top three all time. *Waits for Kanye to interrupt* It wasn’t just explotions that made it but the shadows being cast over the cities, the sense of mystery and hint it was something we hadn’t seen FX-wise before. I have to admit the film itself was a bit cheesier than I expected. I do remember seeing it early in the morning in some theater in Westwood with a line a mile long. Nice electricity in the air once inside. I wish that would happen more often. I liked that ID4 wasn’t so cgi to still use models. That really makes a huge difference. It’s like 2012 took a step backwards by comparison.

  23. chris says:

    Triple Option, you just reminded me I saw “Independence Day” at an advance (junket) screening at the Ziegfeld. That enormous crowd was so into the movie that I suspect it’s the one time a wave of crowd enthusiasm swept me up with it.

  24. brack says:

    What’s amazing is that ID4 had a $75m budget. That would be unheard of now.

  25. Bulldog68 says:

    Didn’t ID4 give birth to the Big Wille Weekend? It was Men In Black just 1 year later. Then Wild Wild West in 99. MiB2 in 2002. Hancock 2008. The ripples of ID4 run wide and deep.

  26. Joe Leydon says:

    Bulldog: Want a laugh? Take a look at this video around the 2:40 mark. Back at the time of Men in Black, he already was thinking about that.

  27. Bulldog68 says:

    Foresight is foresight Joe. And you must have the best behaved son with the amount of daddy points you must have built up over the years with autographs and star meetings that your son must have experienced through you over the years.

    I also think it would an interesting class topic and exercise to list all the movies that have been influenced by ID4 in someway(and not directed by Emmerich), it of course not being an absolute original itself, but clearly by the comments here, a pivotal point in movie history.

  28. hcat says:

    ‘it of course not being an absolute original itself’

    Talk about an understatement, just as White House Down looks like it is a mash-up of previous action movies ID4 liberally borrowed from V, Alien, Star Wars etc…

    As for influences, the much maligned though I still quite enjoyed it, Volcano was the first to try to catch that lightning in the bottle a second time (out a scant 9 months after ID4 hit, talk about a quick turnaround). But you can easily claim that all the ‘disaster’ action that popped up after that (asteriods, Titanic, Pearl Harbor and the like) were chasing these same dollars.

    Even for how big ID4 was (and I think it was the second highest grosser for fox at the time), is there still enough goodwill for a TWO-part sequel at todays prices?

  29. palmtree says:

    Obviously, ID4 isn’t a paragon of originality…but it marked a paradigm shift. More than “disaster,” it was alien invasion disaster that was revived as something Hollywood could confidently sink money into again. For example, weren’t Battleship and The Watch basically building off the ID4 template?

    (haven’t seen either, but just from the marketing it felt like I was being promised a similar type of thing)

  30. anghus says:

    I’m not sure why someone would call a $75 million dollar budget for a film released in 1996 ‘amazing’. It was right in line with most of the movies of the time. Twister was around 90 million. Mission Impossible was around 80 million. The Rock was 75 million.

    They had no stars in that movie. If you would have had a headliner or two in ID4, the budget probably would have been 85-95 million which was pretty standard for the big summer movies of that time.

    They sold the movie on the scope, which is where the money went. Not to big name talent. I’m not sure how that qualifies as ‘amazing’.

  31. leahnz says:

    ‘amazing’ is making Aliens for 18 mil. (like the craft services budget nowadays) maybe take away the big budgets from some of the so-called new crop of action/sci fi directors, it forces innovation and creativity and hunger – blomkamp and jones are more in this mold, i guess it will be interesting to see what blomkamp does with 100mil vs 30mil

  32. Hallick says:

    What is great about Independence Day is at the same time impossible to defend. Yeah, Judd Hirsch’s character is groaningly stereotypical in the movie, but at the same time he’s pretty fucking great in the movie. Some of his stuff with Goldblum isn’t just summer blockbuster crap between scenes of blowing stuff up real good, it’s touching and kind of wise.

    And then you’ve got the hoary old action film cliche of the couple that just couldn’t make it work because SHE wanted a big career and HE was happy idling by, but again, Colin and Goldblum forge a nice chemistry and in their big confrontation in the last half hour the film plays that same-old-song at a perfect pitch.

  33. brack says:

    Really anghus, considering Battleship cost $209 million, with no stars (they didn’t sell Liam Neeson)? An interesting budget considering how small the movie felt for such a large production budget. I understand inflation is involved, but seriously, there was no reason that movie had to have that big of a budget.

    People can say what they will about George Lucas, but at least he knew how to budget.

  34. Jermsguy says:

    It’s a little sillier than Olympus Has Fallen. Emmerich gives the game away early when he has a character talk about the part of the White House “that was blown up in Independence Day.” Yoink!

    I took my oldest son to it and he loved it. He said it kept doing things that appealed to his inner 7-yr-old, like pretty much everything the Tour Guide did. I liked it. It has its issues. It was Die Hard in the White House.

  35. berg says:

    you;re totally missing the point … WHD is all about the Tiananmen moment where the little girl waves the flag on the White House lawn and the fighter pilot says “We’re not doing this guys, Abort.”

  36. Triple Option says:

    Dude, Spoilers!

    I was expecting something a little more cleaver. Air Force One had more going for it. There were unintended laughs and some jokes that fell flat. I expected more ass kicking from Jamie Foxx. I like seeing big explosions and total mayham as much as the next guy but there are times when exercising self control makes for a much better, more convincing movie. It wasn’t a total waste but I thought they could’ve used the White House more convincingly. It might as well have been a historic hotel.

  37. anghus says:

    I think I would have liked WHD better if Foxx was the main character and went Django on the whole thong. By the final reel it would be the POTUS drenched in blood severing heads with a machete and spearing villains with the American flag like Mel Gibson in the remake of Mr Smith Goes to Washington

  38. Joe Leydon says:

    Anghus: Judging from the early box-office reports, the movie you described might have fared better than the movie they actually made.

  39. SamLowry says:

    “I’m trying to paint a picture of how new and fresh sprawling CGI destruction looked in the mid-90s”

    That destruction was almost entirely miniatures. ID4 could’ve been released in 1980 with few changes made.

  40. SamLowry says:

    for example:

    “To achieve the effect of flames traveling down the street, they a had miniature tilted upward and had the explosives at the bottom with a camera mounted on the top.”


    “Holds the record for most miniature modelwork to appear in one film. It is said more minatures were used for this film than in any other two films combined. Due to the advances in digital technology since this film’s release, most experts believe this record may stand forever.”

    Just sayin’.

  41. leahnz says:

    ah not so Sam, Independance Day is widely known in the effects community as the first film to use extensive CGI/compositng in the effects, there were a lot of models used and in-camera effects but the bulk of the effects were achieved with digital compositing, setting ID well apart from any 80’s effects film.

    this is a brief acount of the number of effects shots and description of techniques used:

  42. movieman says:

    Who else thought that Tatum’s kid looked like a pint-sized version of Elisabeth Moss?

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