Channing Tatum, Jaime Foxx, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Joey King, Jason Clarke and James Woods.
When a paramilitary group lays siege to the White House in order to abduct the President, it’s up to lone cop John McClane to save the day.
Er, sorry. John Cale. It’s up to Cale to be the hero. You sure that’s not a typo?
Hey! Here’s an idea! Let’s talk about a good movie before we get to this week’s thrashing. Pertinent to this installment, we’re going to explore a classic of the action movie genre, the original Die Hard. Hell to the yeah!
Die Hard was a groundbreaking movie. In addition to now being a classic in the action film canon, it set many precedents—for ill and for good—about what an action movie could do and where it could go. Prior to its release, most action movies were exercises in testosterone, profanity and sh*t going kaboom. All vital things, by the way. After Die Hard, out the window went the rulebook and every action potboiler since has been either following its trail or lapping up the crumbs.
Besides pure entertainment value, Die Hard was important for introducing a triad of ideas eventually incorporated into every modern action movie template.
Here we go:
First, it almost single-handedly created a sub-genre of the action film: the “location-specific” movie. Director John McTiernan set the scene of John McClane’s trials in an office building, and nary did our hero nor the audience leave that setting until five minutes before the credits rolled. In comparison, past high watermarks of action films often took place against sweeping backdrops, did a lot of globetrotting (think the Indiana Jones or James Bond movies), crawling in the endless trenches of combat or even taken to the limitless wild, blue yonder. For example, The Great Escape—one of the finest action films ever made, I feel—took place across not only in a seemingly endless POW camp, but also across the German countryside and into Switzerland, for Pete’s sake. Talk about sweeping, and all of us following Steve McQueen on a motorcycle to boot. Rock on!
Not Die Hard. Despite being a vast high-rise skyscraper, Nakatomi Plaza was a warren of endless office cubicles, precipitous elevator shafts, half-finished floors under construction and a lot of hard angles with poor lighting. Very insular. The building was under lockdown; no one getting in or out, especially McClane. This forced our protag into a claustrophobic lair, having to survive by his wits, being resourceful and operate almost solo. No outside force was going to intervene on McClane’s behalf. He was alone, and Nakatomi was his prison.
Now director McTiernan did not single-handedly create the “location-specific” subgenre of action movies, but he was the midwife for making it effective. His work was not unlike Henry Ford and the auto industry. Ford didn’t invent the automobile, he just made it readily accessible. Other past action movies had a key starting point, yes, like The Great Escape’s POW camp or Raiders of the Lost Ark’s Amazonian treasure chamber to set the stage. These prototypes with their location-specific flavor with setting-as-character were rendered solid in McTiernan’s sophomore effort, Predator.
Predator was a fun, taut, bait-and-switch kind of action movie that tricked the hormonally challenged male into believing they were gonna see another Schwarzenegger vehicle of him yelling, shooting and quipping his way through his “wilderness years” between The Terminator and…well, Predator.
Oops. Not this time. To quote Axl, “Welcome to the jungle.”
Predator at its time was the latest iteration of The Most Dangerous Game, but with a nifty sci-fi/socio-political twist. That and a very specific setting: the rain forest of Latin America. Now, with Rambo 2, the jungle was just a part of the setting and scenery; it wasn’t really exploited as a dramatic element. For Predator, the endless tree canopy and rushing waters, wide open and unending swaths of green—not unlike its urban counterpart with the infinite grey floors of Nakatomi Plaza—and lots and lots of mud were the titular villain’s stomping grounds. As well as our doomed heroes’ rat maze. The setting became a character, a antagonist in and of itself. The jungle was just as much a part of Predator as the high-rise was in Die Hard. Location specified, create claustrophobia, give an impression of no way out. All that never-ending green and later late-80s corporate grey metaphor resulted in a dehumanizing neutrality that would make one feel, well, outside and vulnerable. Excellent scenario to generate tension, as all action movies should have in spades.
So I said, with Predator and later Die Hard, the actual setting of an action film became its own character, and with such success that the formula eventually spawned many, many derivations. Speed, Die Hard on a bus. Under Siege, Die Hard on a boat. Air Force One, Die Hard on a plane (with Han Solo! How’s that for validating a genre?). The surroundings were no longer just backdrop anymore. They became part of the integral plot. It was especially important with McTiernan’s follow-up to Die Hard: the big screen adaptation of Tom Clancy’s The Hunt for Red October. What’s more isolating than life aboard a submarine? Talk about location specific.
Here’s the second leg of the triad, an extension of location-as-character. Die Hard would’ve gotten nowhere without its protagonist established as both fully-dimensional and regular guy, not all sweaty like Rambo or Dutch. Before McClane, most action heroes were not self-effacing, vulnerable and God forbid guys who got scared. McClane’s just some schlub trapped in a building crawling with heavily armed “terrorists” a wee bit peeved at him for being a fly in their proverbial ointment. His bewildered, “how did I get into this mess?” outlook defined the character for the duration of the movie, as things go from bad to worse.
Prior to Die Hard, the gold standard for action was Rambo: First Blood, pt. 2. There was a case that Sly was decidedly none of those things. Stallone gallivanted through the jungle, well-oiled and throbbing, dispatching the baddies with an arsenal of seemingly endless ammo that would shame your average doomsday compound-owning redneck back to Hope Depot looking for RPG launchers. And with Rambo, no wisecracks were uttered nor a smirk cracked, just a lot of growling and grunting. Okay, granted Rambo was nuts, but even the most hardened of marauders chuckle once in a while.
Rambo was bulletproof. McClane was not. Hell, he wasn’t even glass-proof.
John McClane was your Average Joe cop on Xmas vacation. He was not expecting trouble (okay, maybe some from his wife), he didn’t ask to be plopped down into some byzantine caper—unlike Rambo or Hiltz, who both had orders to follow—and he sure as sh*t couldn’t bulldoze his way out of his predicament. McClane was no Rambo. He wasn’t Indy. And he definitely wasn’t Riddick. No. McClane was a chain-smoking, estranged family man who was under-confident, outgunned, cried, got injured (a lot) and even appeased the Lord above to make sure he lived to see the next day. Would Ah-nuld ever do that? Uh-uh.
It was this relatable streak of everyday humanity that made Bruce Willis’ character such an icon. Sure, some days we want Superman, but sometimes we need Clark Kent. We need someone to keep us grounded, connected and extend a hand of sympathy. McClane did that, with humor and determination, and lo and behold, a new action (stereo)type was born. Again, for good and for ill.
By the way, I eventually read the book Die Hard was based on. I also watched the movie relentlessly the summer before I entered high school, like almost daily. I guess this explains a few things. It was called Nothing Lasts Forever by Rod Thorpe. The book was published a decade before the movie proper, and has since been re-titled Die Hard, doubtless to reflect/capitalize on the franchises’ success. Forever was a dark beast, with this stripe of unending pessimism running throughout. The book was filled with meditations of family dysfunction, corporate greed and the rise of “new terrorism.” It’s ending was considerably more downbeat than the movie’s. But moreover, the hero of the book—one Detective Joe Leland, not “John McClane”—was a dour, humorless man with barely a whit of warmth or irony. In fact, the only (in)direct references caged from the original book was the hero being shoeless and the line “Now I have a machine gun” (McTiernan and company added the clever “Ho-ho-ho”). For a slim read—it was only 188 pages—Forever was a slog, and had very little humanity going for it. Here’s a rare case where the film version is superior to the book
Anyway, back to our hero. Before Die Hard, Willis was mostly known as a comedic actor. Fox Studios initially balked at him starring in their new big budget thriller because he had been too busy making America laugh with his wit and smirk on Moonlighting; then later—in his motion picture debut—trying to woo Kim Basinger in Blake Edwards’ Blind Date (a rather underrated screwball comedy). In sum, the studio heads were snuffling, “What does this clown Willis know about testosterone?”
Back in 1988, not much. But Willis indeed knew humor. That humor later became a trademark in both the original Die Hard and the (law of dwindling returns) sequels that followed. The humor made McClane accessible. It made him likeable, like a bar buddy. It also made his points across being scared and anxious and worried for his wife’s well-being as much as he was. I mean, don’t we all at one point in our lives inject brittle humor into times of stress? If you say you don’t, you’re a liar with a cold, cold heart. You probably didn’t ever so much as simper watching Brian’s Song. Punter.
So both by wit and grit—boom—Willis becomes the iconic, working class action hero. To a fault really, resulting in all the derivative ciphers that dropped in Die Hard’s wake. It’s now the case that Willis, by his own admission, is inextricable from action movies. He’s gone from the quintessential, reluctant, wisecracking hero to the quintessential, reluctant, wisecracking hero actor. Again, so much so that I heard Willis opted for a Disney film once because he wanted to star in a movie “his kids could watch.” At least the RED movies are trying to actively deflate Willis’ dubious legacy, with a wink and a smile.
Willis has become a victim of his own legacy. What’s more, for every Jack Traven, Casey Ryback or Dr. David Grant, we must thank and/or blame John McClane for birthing this now hackneyed action type. Others have tried, some have succeeded, but none have done it better than former loose cannon, goofball Bruce Willis. Yippie ki-yay, motherf*cker. Till death do you part.
Okay. Thanks for your patience. I got the vibe from my readers that, “Hey, blogger, you’re rambling. Again.” Heard you. Reeling it in. Quite soon.
Like Cosby, I told you those stories to tell you this story; the third leg of the triad The endless derivations of McTiernan’s beast that now cannot be fed. Sometimes when I want to sink my teeth into mindless, sweaty, defy-the-laws of physics kind of action movie…well, these days, few are to be found. They all are “gritty and earthy” like so much potting soil. Ghosts of John McClane. What was revo a quarter-century ago has now become as well trodden as the lines at the local Cineplex. So much that I’m wishing for an exaggerated, anti-hero like Rambo again. At least his films delved into utter stupidity with no shame unlike the dozens of Die Hard rip-offs that’s polluted the filmscape for the past three decades.
At their core, action films are meant to either revel in dumb fun, or set the stage with a cool story that’ll eventually result in dumb fun. It’s the delicate balance between engaging your neocortex while giving your brainstem a hand job. McTiernan did it. His film did not pander like a lot of the interchangeable 1980’s shock-and-awe boomfests. McTiernan learned from these mistakes, and instead gave us a smart story with well-rounded characters and engaging action. Who could ask for more? The original Die Hard never pandered.
Anyway, still reeling it in. Director McTiernan achieved success three times (once even with a Baldwin brother). But Die Hard, a tight, confined action-drama that the likes have never seen before or since set the standard, for better or worse. Good job, John—both director and his creation—and now, despite all the millions you’ve made for Hollywood, you’ve never received open credit for your donation to film.
I’m doing it here. Thanks John McTiernan. And curse you, too.
So there you have it. I know I’m not the first guy—nor the last—who waxed all philosophical about Die Hard. The movie’s been dissected a million ways to Sunday by endless cinema buffs. I figure the film wouldn’t be left well alone if it weren’t such a defining classic. Its success launched both many sequels (most of which are car wrecks) and endless imitators (most of them twisted metal). Some good (Speed), some bad (er…Speed 2) and some trying either to pay homage or add a new twist. Most with dwindling quality.
Welp, here we go again. Too bad you were tall enough for this ride.
White House Down is the latest incarnation in this never-ending line of toys. You think I had a lot to comment about with Die Hard? We should check out what disaster movie maven Roland Emmerich had to say with White House Down.
But more on that later. First, there’s something sinister lurking in the District of Columbia…
It’s a hard-won goal to get your dream job.
Stressed out Capitol police officer John Cale (Tatum) tries and tries and yet can’t reach his brass ring: to be a member of the Secret Service. Sure, he’s been decorated in combat, and has a more or less reliable CV, but overall he’s been coasting. Cale’s been doing either the “safe” thing as a cop (a position he basically fell into) or simply the middling thing to get by being a working-class schmo cum absentee parent. He’s got a lot of nerve, passion and very few prospects. Especially when it comes to the big deal job of his dreams: ensuring the President’s safety.
On one of his weekends, Cale comes to pick up his daughter Emily (King) who is a burgeoning politics wonk. The kid wants to tag along for Dad’s interview with the big cheese, Carol Finnerty (Gyllenhaal) who will give the yay or nay if John has the right stuff to be a Secret Service agent. Cale and Finnerty have some history, personal and otherwise. Of course the interview does not go well, so Dad has to break the news to his daughter:
“I think I have a shot.”
With that offhand remark, Emily drags her worn out Dad on a tour of the White House. Sure, what else now does Cale have to do with his time? Much to Emily’s surprise—as well as John’s—President Sawyer (Foxx) is home, and on his way to Congress to argue his proposal to ensure all American troops are out of the Mideast in due course. Ever the statesman—and knowing that any press is good press—Sawyer offers up the highlights of his proposition to Emily and gives her a shout out on her blog to boot. Yep, she’s in heaven. And it’s a nice change for John and Emily to share a moment together rather than an argument.
Meanwhile, not all is well in Camelot.
The head of the Secret Service, Martin Walker (Woods) has a bone to pick. Ever since losing his son in the Mideast, Walker has become increasing disenfranchised with the political machine he’s sworn to protect for all these years. Especially having to uphold the President’s latest efforts of peacekeeping, which Walker views as another pie in the sky. But he’s retiring! Time to wave all that bureaucracy bye-bye, settle down, maybe mourn a little, write some memoirs, take up knitting, whatever.
Nuh-uh. Walker’s aforementioned picky bone.
So now the President wants to make all nice with the enemy. That’s all hunky dory. Where was this action back when Sawyer was getting re-elected? It took a back seat, as well as Walker’s son. And Walker is not alone in his dismay about how the administration’s been run under Sawyer. Turns out that there are a lot of disgruntled ex-government workers who sympathize with Walker’s plight. It’s high time that this upstart Prez quit crawling into bed with the baddies and takes care of the homefront first.
But how…where do you attack your enemy where they’d be most defenseless?
Of course! On his home turf…
Director Emmerich is no stranger to making things get all blow’d up good on screen. He’s a master of disaster—the movie kind, that is. This is the guy who re-invented the summer blockbuster—as well as give Will Smith acting career a boost—with Independence Day and later unleashing his Godzilla remake, The Day After Tomorrow and 2012.
Uh. Wait. Hang on.
All right, with the possible exception of ID4, most of Emmerich’s films have been schlocky at best and outright stupid at worst. But you wanna know what?
I think he knows this.
All his big-budget fiascos have their tongues firmly in cheek. There is not an air of pretense or solemnity in his work. There’s no apologies either, or giving a damn what critics say. The man’s having fun and making merry! Hopefully the audience will follow him down his rabbit hole. Quite often they do.
Despite their tight, linear and technically executed production, Emmerich’s movies have a ramshackle quality to them, like everything’s gonna fly off the hinges with the next scene. Disaster films are like that though; we’re expecting to see havoc wreaked and sh*t going kerblooey. We want to see innocents in danger, running around and screaming in a panic, punching each other in the head trying to put the fires out. We especially want special effects that insult the gravitational constant of the Universe. We want the boomy things. Can’t forget that.
Emmerich’s fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants aesthetic has worked to greater or lesser degrees for over twenty years. In addition to that cutting edge/disheveled quality of his productions, his movies almost have an improv aspect to them; we’re just makin’ it up as we go along here, people. Here we go! Let’s go for a ride! Ka-blam! Splat! Whee! It’s this kind of maverick attitude that makes his films just so darn endearing. Here we got an adult male in the director’s chair—ostensibly all grown up—but give him his toys and implements of destruction and whoopee! All bets are off; he’s nine again on Xmas Eve. Here we go again with another circus, dancing elephants and all. People keep getting suckered into watching his silliness, and laughing at themselves for it every time.
Here’s a tired but apt metaphor: Emmerich’s films are roller coaster rides. Yeah, yeah. That one’s been used since the damned things were invented. Still, his fly-by-night operations are pretty fun if you go along with the joke. And most of Emmerich’s body of work has been one big winking joke. He knows this is all about fun and nothing else. In truth, that’s what all movies are supposed to be about. Art form, social commentary, exposé? Pish-aw. Emmerich’s squealing at the naked emperor. He does it with every one of his movies, thumbing his nose at the public and needfully deflating hipster film critic egos. No artistic merit? Who cares? The first motion picture was about a f*cking train robbery! The first movie wasn’t some pithy Shakespearean adaptation. It was an action flick! It’s as though through his lens, Emmerich is screaming, “Remember that, you yutzes!?!” Boink!
Now, you’re probably saying, “Wait a minute. Hey, blogger. What about Michael Bay? His crapola’s a big, fat joke, too. And you talk about explosions? Right! And where are your pants?”
Good question (never you mind about me pantaloons). I draw a fine line between Bay’s popcorn-chokers and Emmerich’s “play it fast and loose” escapades. Note: fine line. Sure, both Bay and Emmerich love to play around with pyrotechnics. Both employ storylines that can be derivative (especially here with Down), with stars that seem either out of place or out of sync with the film’s tone. Both guys operate a little thin in the human drama department.
So what’s the diff? Here’s that fine line, and I bet some of you are gonna groan and start up with the goddam beer cans again. Quit that!
Where Bay’s exercises in cinematic excess are designed to distract you from the fact that his movies are infinite loops of non-Euclidean logic, Emmerich’s histrionics are used to drive the (often unoriginal and threadbare) story. They enhance the feeble plots, and not used primarily as wallpaper. That’s right, “enhance.” Bay’s sh*t leads up to and is eventually punctuated by fireworks, but is nothing more than shock-and-awe. Emmerich’s nonsense is woven in and out of the story like some tapestry. This makes his oeuvre a lot smoother and allows a little breathing room for story, drama and acting. Granted, not a lot of those things—nor seldom good—but their presence are better felt than the baiting Bay uses. And who is a better smooth-talker, pouring honey in your ear, than a guy with a knowing sense of humor? Emmerich’s slapdash is awash in corny jokes, sight gags, one-liners, hammy characters and an overall feeling of “Gotcha!”
Long story short, Emmerich’s movies are organic and funny. Bay’s are neither.
White House Down is no exception. It follows the usual, tried-and-true Emmerich formula. It’s chockfull of the mindless goofiness and hair-brained spectacles we’ve all come to expect from his demented brain. But there are a few twists, and it’s these novelties that keep Down afloat and not come across as yet another obvious Die Hard rip-off. Even if it is.
Let’s talk about Cale for a moment. Now Channing is no Bruce Willis, and maybe that’s good thing. It’s made clear at the outset that Cale is Joe Average, but not in a humble, underdog kind of way. In fact, Cale is kind of a slacker, and people often have a lot of contempt for foot-draggers. Cale never completed any necessary education to be a Secret Service agent. He only got his current job out of blind luck. His marriage failed and his own kid won’t even call him Dad. Cale’s neither a loveable loser nor a plucky charmer who’s down on his luck. Nope. He’s an absentee father and kind of a drudge. How is an audience supposed to get behind a hero like this?
The key about Down’s execution is, for once, our John McClane cipher is not operating alone. Our John Cale (and who wants to wager the writers were Velvet Underground fans?) may be the focus of our adventure, but he’s not the lone wolf like McClane was. Our schlumpy hero actually has some allies in his struggles, as well as an actual partner, the POTUS himself. Not only that, but “Our Man in Berlin” is Finnerty, who Cale keeps in radio contact to keep apprised of what’s going on outside the action. Finally, Cale has own inside man—er, daughter running point to keep the baddies distracted. It’s a family affair.
It’s through these interactions that Cale becomes accessible. Prior to all this madness, Tatum is just John Cale, working-class nobody. Once plopped into all the chaos, he rises to the occasion. Now that he’s got a real mission—to save not only the Prez but his daughter, too—Cale musters up enough courage to fight back and take out the bad guys. You kind of got the impression from Die Hard that McClane wanted to save his skin, whack Hans and company and rescue his wife, in that order. In Down, Cale’s motives are highly personal and start to come across as even selfless. Eventually—but definitely not at first—Tatum makes a decent action star. Not great, but serviceable. Maybe even likeable. Doubtless the character—and story as a whole—wouldn’t’ve panned out that way without a good supporting cast behind him, literally and figuratively.
Like I said, our protag has in a partner in Down, namely the President. And what a delightful, protean character he is, too. Foxx’s Obama-meets-Denzel-meets-Urkel role is a little schizo, but Foxx’s charm and comedic talent make it work. His President Sawyer is one moment, dedicated statesman, then leader of the free world, then determined family man, then fighter. All of these disjointed facets would usually confuse, even insult audiences’ sensibilities. But you forget this is a Roland Emmerich film! Our Prez is the comic relief. He gets almost all the good one-liners. He’s awkward but determined to save his home, his life and his agenda, and he’s not afraid to pick up a gun and take out these home invaders. Sawyer’s the guy that Cale’s not: a leader in words and action. Between their uneasy partnership (not unlike the Lethal Weapon movies), both find union against a common enemy.
And boy, oh boy, have we got an enemy for you. James Woods has always been a smooth smoothie. His acting style is laid-back and to-the-point, but has a gift for delivering tension is very subtle ways. Most folks might agree with me—at least those who’ve paid attention to Woods’ long career—that Woods’ outward genial nature underlies a simmering anger and sinister bent, like his characters always have a personal agenda. They often do, but Woods delivers it patiently and slowly, until the hero realizes, “Oh, sh*t!” and it’s too late.
You hear me. Woods plays bad guys really well, and not just his unglued Walker here. He’s always been good at being slimy and chewing scenery without hamminess. I remember a couple of movies from the 80s that were definitive Woods, but neither at all blockbusters. One was Best Seller, where Woods plays a hitman who kidnaps a novelist so he can write Woods’ memoirs, as well as drag him along for one last target: the one who got away, as well as his daughter. The other was simply titled Cop, where Woods’ detective character goes off the grid to hunt down a serial killer who’s been offing all the women in Wood’s life. Dark stuff, and Woods’ pulls it off with a flintiness and barely-there smile that just screams anti-hero. Even his role in Contact, as the administrator trying to disprove Jodie Foster’s contact with extra-terrestrials, Woods comes across as coolly logical and determined, but not being cast as truly a “bad guy.” When you take in what Walker’s motives are for the siege, and his demands proper, he almost seems, well, reasonable. It’s that even-handed poise that makes Woods so sympathetic and such a great villain.
A good action movie should use intimate pieces of humanity to buffer the adrenalin. Down would be just another boomfest without engaging, likeable and above all fun characters amidst all the organized chaos. It’s an Emmerich movie; it’s lighthearted, despite all the gunplay. There’s lots of clean, easy action tempered with sharp humor. No muss, no fuss, (SPOILER) even when a subplot about a government conspiracy against the President is introduced in the third act. Conspiracy theories are also a lot of fun, and I’ve already pounded on what fun is to making this movie work. There are a few loops here that usually aren’t a part of Emmerich’s go-to, straight-line storytelling style, but like the explosions, they’re interwoven in such a way that they don’t detract from the story’s barrel-roll tempo. And don’t think for a moment that the bits that are of a heavier concept backbite the relentless, nutzoid action scenes. The pacing was really smooth, with barely a lull. Isn’t that what action’s all about?
Okay. So Die Hard will never be topped, and yes, there will thousands more of movies like White House Down coming down the pike (be ready to catch Frosty! Die Hard on an ice cream truck). But you gotta give some props to a crazy, whimsical, carnival barker-type director like Emmerich to do a rip-off so shamelessly and admittedly funny. If you think about it, Down is a Die Hard satire. We’re all woefully familiar with the formula by now, and as I said, Emmerich knows this. We ain’t trying to reinvent the wheel here, but we’re having fun knocking out a few of the spokes to see where the wagon crashes.
Rent it or relent it? Rent it. Three words: This was fun. Stupid, giddy fun, Disregarding the histrionics of the source material, but paired with Emmerich’s verve, White House Down injects some much needed goofiness into the Die Hard knockoffs that keep sprouting up. Yippee…oh, whatever. You get it.
- “That’s a talent?”
- With the Capitol Dome collapsing, would that be an allusion to 9/11? One would think people, including Emmerich, would still be sensitive about that. Then again, you gotta set the stakes high at the start of an action movie.
- “…which got blew up in Independence Day.” Ha!
- Beethoven’s “Fifth Symphony?” Really?
- “Get. Your. Hands. Off. My. Jordans!”
- Nicorette! Again: Ha!
- “Please don’t touch my toys.”
- Lorazepam. Yeah, it’s not for just any ol’ headache.
- “What is with this family?”
- If only Emmerich had access to CGI twenty years ago…
- “Did you see my routine?”
- I know this installment ran a little long. Sorry and too bad. You made it all the way down here, didn’t ya?
Jon Favreau understands that the job of a Chef is hard, but learns that the job as a dad can be far harder. Fire the boards!