- - Thursday, June 27, 2013

White House Down” is the sort of movie that rewards low expectations. Fortunately, moviegoers were well primed with the similarly themed “Olympus Has Fallen” earlier this year. “Olympus,” another film about a federal protection agent who protects the president from a White House siege, was a movie defined by its low-rent mediocrity. All “White House Down” needed to beat the competition was to be competent, or pretty close.

As it turns out, “competent, or pretty close” nicely sums up the quality of “White House Down.” Like “Olympus Has Fallen,” it’s essentially a remake of “Die Hard” set in the White House. But unlike “Olympus,” “White House Down” has better actors, and a slightly stronger sense of how to exploit its premise.

Unlike “Olympus,” which had a great invasion sequence and then couldn’t figure out what to do with itself, “White House Down” is a movie that knows it’s not enough merely to see the White House taken in a terrorist attack. What you really want is to explore the presidential digs, section by section, room by room — and see each bit properly destroyed.

The movie also benefits substantially from its quality cast: Channing Tatum as the nice-guy protection agent, Jamie Foxx as the president he’s sworn to protect, Jason Clarke as a senior terrorist henchman, Richard Jenkins as a top congressional official, and James Woods as a turncoat Secret Service agent. All of them consistently elevate their scenes, and all of them deserve better.

The same goes for the viewers subjected to the movie’s insipid politics: Several henchmen are revealed to be right-wing loonies, and the final twist — well, let’s just say it’s a not-so-subtle dig at GOP House Speaker John A. Boehner.

The movie’s baddies, meanwhile, all work in the service of the defense industry. Asked who’s behind the attack, Mr. Foxx’s President James Sawyer responds, with an absolutely straight face, “Ever heard of the military-industrial complex?”

One can perhaps imagine a compelling movie about defense industry cronyism, but the movie never gets any more specific than this. American defense contractors are apparently just a blob of nonspecific villainy who have come together in support of a nefarious but ingenious plan to, er, destroy the White House and take the president hostage, because of profits, or something. Whatever.

None of this is particularly surprising coming from Roland Emmerich, the man who made “The Day After Tomorrow,” a dumber-than-dirt disaster movie about global warming, and “Independence Day,” a movie that strongly implied humans might deserve to be wiped out by rapacious aliens because we don’t recycle enough.

Mr. Emmerich, on the other hand, recycles plenty in “White House Down,” including a half-dozen or so beats stolen directly from “Die Hard.” It’s unoriginal, but it’s not quite terrible.

As in “Independence Day,” Mr. Emmerich delivers a reasonable level of high-gloss Hollywood action schlock. The Capitol dome gets blown to smithereens, and a scene in which Black Hawk helicopters buzz low through the city streets offers a nice tour of a computer-generated Washington. A limousine shoot-‘em-up on the White House lawn is fun, though not as much as it could have been. That’s about par for the course.

I can’t say I had very high expectations for “White House Down,” but I can say they were met.

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