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Milwaukee's Daily Magazine for Saturday, Aug. 30, 2014

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Jamie Foxx and Channing Tatum star in "White House Down," now playing.
Jamie Foxx and Channing Tatum star in "White House Down," now playing.

"White House Down" is all-American dumb fun

The White House is under attack. Flames bellow from the Oval Office as armed militia storm one of the most iconic and important symbols of America, shooting anyone in a suit in their path. The American people and the surviving members of the cabinet watch in horror as the country teeters on the brink of disaster. It’s up to one man to fight the assault and save the President: a wannabe Secret Service agent played by hunky star Gerard Butler.

Wait … hold on a second. Sorry, it seems I’ve mixed up my "Olympus Has Fallen" notes from a couple months ago with my "White House Down" notes. Let’s try this again: The White House is under attack, and it’s up to one man (Channing Tatum) to fight the assault, save the President and convince potential viewers that no, this isn’t just a more expensive version of the same movie they saw three months ago.

It’s too bad "White House Down" will always be considered the knock-off (they both began filming last July), because it’s also easily the more entertaining of the two.

Tatum plays the all-American everyday hero with the action movie-approved name John Cale. In the middle of a failed job interview and White House tour with his history buff daughter (Joey King, who played the young Talia al Ghul in "The Dark Knight Rises"), a group of terrorists take over the building and plot to capture the President. A silver-haired James Woods plays the mastermind; Jason Clarke from "Zero Dark Thirty" is his steely second-in-command.

Luckily, Tatum does his best John McClane impression (he even strips down from his GQ-approved, undone top button suit and tie to a white wifebeater) and intervenes, saving the peace-seeking Commander-in-Chief, played by Jamie Foxx. With escape impossible, the two team up to fight the terrorists as James Vanderbilt’s script turns into a "Die Hard"-buddy cop lovechild (so "Die Hard with a Vengeance"), with Tatum playing the action savvy hero and Foxx as the stodgy, peace-seeking partner.

Even the most peace-loving of presidents, however, can get pushed too far, leading to, yes, repeatedly kicking a terrorist for touching his Jordans.

It’s silly, but unlike its predecessor, "White House Down" owns its silliness. The movie knows the concept of the White House getting taken over is audience pandering and frankly preposterous (you’d think the White House would be prepared for the "sneak-in-as-janitors" approach). So instead of playing it straight, they have fun, adding some much-needed humor and personality in between the exciting explosions and rehashed action movie clichés. And there are plenty of both.

There’s a big, ominous red-numbered countdown clock. There’s a punchably smug villainous techie and a heavy that looks like a skinnier version of Bennett from "Commando."

All of the characters are pretty much types. The down-on-his-luck hero/father, the noble figurehead, the exhausted ex-wife (barely worth mentioning) and the cocky military head who midway through the movie makes a dumb decision despite everyone knowing it’s a bad idea all make their scheduled appearances.

Vanderbilt and disaster-happy director Roland Emmerich ("2012," "Independence Day") follow the "Die Hard" playbook pretty closely, and when they’re not pulling from that ’80s classic, they’re copying Emmerich’s own tried-and-true blockbuster formula.

This was the same problem with "Olympus Has Fallen," but it’s amazing what a little charisma and energy can do for a movie. While its older sibling simply took the bare bones outline from its obvious inspiration, "White House Down" adapts its structure and its spirit. As a result, it plays less like a bland rip-off and more like an enthusiastically entertaining throwback.

Even though he’s been scaled back from having the entire globe as his explosive plaything to a single building, Emmerich still stages several satisfying adrenaline-fueled gunfights and fireballs. It is PG-13, but the action is still gleefully destructive, tense and exciting.

Most importantly, he has a likeable lead duo that is a lot of fun together. Tatum and Foxx aren’t exactly extraordinary actors, but they’re above-average movie stars with above-average buddy chemistry on screen. They make Vanderbilt’s good banter and quips pop, and his dopier lines, uh, less dopey (Foxx can’t do too much with some of his character’s finger-pointing speeches against the military-industrial complex, which sound like they were pulled from a very special episode of "Captain Planet").

They’re clearly having fun, and I did too, even if my brain kind of hated me for it afterward. If "Olympus Has Fallen" was the rote, by-the-books first part of a Fourth of July fireworks show, then "White House Down" is the grand finale, with everything thrown into the air and blown up in the name of mindless entertainment.  

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