Is this 2013's most unfairly overlooked blockbuster?
A box office disappointment in the US, have audiences been wrong to turn their back on Roland Emmerich's White House Down?
In truth, there are several obvious reasons why Roland Emmerich's best film in ages, White House Down, underperformed at the US box office. Costing around $150m to make and taking just $72m at the American box office, the film arrives in the UK this week with many perceiving it to be some kind of flop. It's not, but it's certainly done less than Sony would have been hoping and expecting.
Reason one? Olympus Has Fallen. A surprise hit earlier in the year, it basically started with the same premise as White House Down - the White House has been taken over! - and basically got to cinema screens first. Nearly $100m of bounty in the US later (and the earlier film was much cheaper to make), and Olympus Has Fallen is one of the sleeper hits of the year.
Second? The US release date was June 28th. That was opposite Paul Feig's hit buddy comedy The Heat (US take: $157m off a $43m budget), and the week after Monsters University and World War Z, both of which went on to be big hits. White House Down had two solid movie stars (Channing Tatum and Jamie Foxx), but no franchise, no book, no sequel, and not much chance, in hindsight.
Then there's the Roland Emmerich factor. Once the purveyor of fun sci-fi films such as Stargate, Independence Day and - I'll say it - The Day After Tomorrow, his more recent track record has been patchy. Shakespeare drama Anonymous flopped, whilst 2012 may have taken lots of money, but it was a dour, very long disaster movie.
On top of that there was the generally negative critical response. Loud, violent, formulaic, preposterous? In truth, all of those hit.
But here's why I think White House Down is one of the most fun action movies to arrive in cinemas in some time: there's no way that Roland Emmerich and his team aren't in on the joke. In fact, large parts reminded me of Con Air, the ultimate tongue-rammed-firmly-in-its-cheek action movie. White House Down isn't the same vintage, but it's bloody good fun.
It's also - I'll get this out the way now - a lot better than Olympus Has Fallen. I didn't mind Olympus, but it was, at heart, a nasty, old-school action movie with some good moments, and Gerard Butler beating the shit out of things that moved, and some that didn't.
White House Down doesn't want to play that game. It's got the same idea, of having the White House taken over by people waving guns and threats around, but it has so much more fun with the premise. Because this is Roland Emmerich gathering up every cliche he can find, every staple of the genre, and having as much fun with them as he can find. He has lots.
Take the opening half hour. Here's where we meet Channing Tatum's wannabe secret service agent, estranged from his 11-year old daughter but keen to win her over. The answer? Take her to his job interview at the White House! And what's that? Tatum's old flame, played by Maggie Gyllenhaal is interviewing him? That's a Brucie bonus right there!
What's impressive about that opening - and Emmerich has arguably always been better about building up to big disasters than dealing with the middle and end of them - is that it's really, really efficient. Not just in the way it lays out the path of the film, but that it barely wastes anything. It's like playing an old school adventure game on a computer. Every item that you pick up in the first quarter comes into play at some point by the time things are resolved. Even trivial references have their place in this film, and it's as if they've set themselves a challenge to use absolutely everything.
James Vanderbilt's screenplay jigsaws all this together well, and it can never resist a laugh. To its credit, the film gets lots of them, from a less-than-subtle dig at Emmerich's Independence Day, to the sheer gall with which it plugs in its tour of conventional genre touchpoints. Or, when it just goes plain daft, with one particular car chase a magnet of guffaws.
Furthermore, there's a crackling, witty chemistry between Tatum and Jamie Foxx's President. The rest of the supporting cast are impressive, but not given too much to do (Gyllenhaal suffers particularly in a promising but ultimately quite weak role), yet the breadth of the cast does allow Emmerich to open up the focus of things just a little. It also means he's got room for one or two added plot points that stretch the film a good ten minutes past its natural endpoint.
And to be clear: this is no blind appreciation of a movie. White House Down has its problems. Humour is preferred to suspense, which is a trade off not everyone is going to like. For all the sense that he's in on the joke, Emmerich does over-egg things from time to time. And if you're allergic to US patriotism, perhaps White House under threat movies aren't your ideal ticket.
But in a summer where darkness, sequels, incomprehensible action, noise and wholesale destruction were available in varying degrees, I'd argue that White House Down has a fun and tongue in cheek factor that few could rival. It's Emmerich remembering that this stuff is supposed to be entertaining, and showing some signs of being a half-decent comedy director, as well as an established wrangler of visual effects.
Even the screening of critics that I saw the film with were merrily chortling away, and I don't blame them a jot. Because White House Down, above all else, is just damn good fun. It cuts off one or two of the nasty edges of Olympus Has Fallen, and just about gets over the finish line whilst the idea of watching it all again still rests in your mind. Mr Emmerich? More like this please. It's more fun when you blow up something small than something big...
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