So here’s the thing about action movies: ever since Die Hard, Hollywood has been trying to make another Die Hard. They’ve done every variation of hostage situation including several more office buildings, they’ve done every type of non-American villain except Canadian, and they’ve given every macho leading man from Harrison Ford to Alec Baldwin (in 1990) a shot at the title. But even Bruce Willis as John McClane fighting Russian terrorists in A Good Day to Die Hard couldn’t recapture the magic. Now it’s Antoine Fuqua’s chance to direct, and Gerard Butler’s chance to play the hero. Are the elements that make up the bones of Die Hard present? Yes. Do they work? No.
Secret Service agent Mike Banning (Butler) is kicked off the President’s detail when he fails to save the First Lady from a car crash. Eighteen months later and he is working at the Treasury Department on the day that the South Korean delegation is visiting President Asher (Aaron Eckhart). Then a gunship bomber flies over D.C. and starts shooting at anything and anyone, tourist groups turn out to be heavily armed infantry, while part of the South Korean delegation turn out to be the bad guys. The fact that one of them is played by the diamond-faced villain from Die Another Day could have been a clue.
With the President and VP taken hostage and the White House occupied, the government is handed over to Speaker of the House, Morgan Freeman. He has a character name, but all you need to know is he’s Morgan Freeman, which is good because that’s all the filmmakers give you. Party affiliations and character development have no place in action movies.
Something I hadn’t considered in my excitement to see Die Hard in the White House was that the whole “lone hero” scenario requires removing the other heroes. Washington D.C. has a lot of possible heroes to remove, and this means that the debut siege is a bloodbath. This sequence is one of the most original in the film, and it feels like the part that got the script the green light, but it resembles Saving Private Ryan more than anything from the Nakatomi Building.
It may be unfair for me to constantly compare this film to Die Hard, but I can easily see Butler’s character going home to watch the Willis classic and saying, “Why doesn’t he just shoot them in the head? He should just shoot them in the head. Do you think he considered just shooting them in the head?” I didn’t even try to count how many Full Metal Jacket brain splatters were the result of Butler firing a perfectly-aimed shot.
An essential part of the lone hero action film is the hero’s motivation. It’s not good enough that he wants to be a good guy and save everyone. John McClane would have left the building if his wife weren’t in the hostages. The same goes for Ford in Air Force One. Butler’s only motivation seems to be doing his job, which is fairly weak as far as action movies go.
But, at the halfway point, the film did not deserve much scorn. It succeeded in delivering what the trailers promised, which was a lot of action in the relatively new setting of the White House. However, in the second half, there is a device introduced that rises to Dr. Strangelove levels of stupidity solely for the purpose of raising the stakes higher than they needed to go. Nothing is easier to mock than a ticking clock, and a couple of plot contrivances leading up to it doesn’t help the believability.
As far as action movies go, there have been plenty worse, and if you don’t mind blood this was a worthy popcorn flick. It’s not challenging or particularly well-crafted, but it does what it set out to do.
By the way, if Olympus Has Fallen sounds interesting, but the theaters drop it before you get a chance to go, don’t worry. Roland Emmerich is remaking it with Channing Tatum and Jamie Foxx. White House Down opens June 28.