The Joplin Globe, Joplin, MO

July 6, 2013

Benji Tunnell: 'White House Down' bad copy of 'Olympus'

By Benji Tunnell
Globe Columnist

JOPLIN, Mo. — Long ago I resigned myself to the idea that Hollywood is creatively bankrupt. Those ideas that occasionally break through are generated from those who began their careers outside of the studio system.

Christopher Nolan may have had to prove himself with the "Dark Knight" series before he was able to make "Inception," but it was his work on "Memento" that first gained him attention. Likewise, Rian Johnson surprised many last year with "Looper," except for those familiar with his earlier work in "Brick" and "Brothers Bloom."

But it seems that the studio system values spectacle over creativity (Michael Bay, Brett Ratner, McG and a slew of others), so it shouldn't surprise me when I see multiple versions of the same basic idea racing each other to the big screen.

This spring saw the release of "Olympus Has Fallen," an inanely stupid but surprisingly fun movie about the capture of the White House by a rogue group, starring muscle-bound meathead Gerard Butler. It just beat "White House Down," an inanely stupid and unsurprisingly bland movie about the capture of the White House by a rogue group, starring muscle-bound meathead Channing Tatum.

I think you can see which one I prefer.

Tatum plays Cale, a Capitol policeman agent assigned to protect Speaker of the House Raphelson (Richard Jenkins, who really should know better). Cale is trying to forge a bond with Emily (Joey King), a 12-year-old daughter he hardly knows. Emily is a hardcore political junkie, immersing herself in all kinds of D.C. area minutia, because that's what the kids are into these days. Cale decides to take her with him to see the White House while he is interviewing for a job as a Secret Service agent.

Unfortunately, the horrendous lack of judgment required to take your child on a job interview doesn't reflect well to Agent Finnerty (Maggie Gyllenhaal), who opts not to hire the wholly unqualified and unprofessional Cale.

But because you can't have a movie in which Channing Tatum has to save the White House and his daughter at the same time without having both Tatum and his daughter in the White House, the two latch onto a tour of the building. Meanwhile bad guys infiltrate, with the help of a rogue Secret Service agent, and quickly take over the entire area.

Now it is up to Cale to protect President Sawyer (Jamie Foxx), while trying to recover the White House, defeat the baddies and save his daughter, allowing him to win her respect and love.

The problems with the film are many, starting with the overall premise of the movie. The plot is so contrived that you cannot buy into any of the circumstances.

First, Cale is not that great a guy. He ran from his wife and child by enlisting in the Army, then when he gets back he expects to integrate directly into his daughter's life. But he can't be bothered to remember the date of her talent show, opting instead to blame his ex-wife for not reminding him. The hero of the film is essentially a part-time, mostly indifferent dad.

The villain, if you will (and I'll resist naming the actor so there might be some small element of surprise), has the dumbest motivation possible in his attempts to capture the president, and such behavior would go against 30 years of dedication and training.

In addition, the White House security is so inept and poorly trained that a group of about a dozen or so is able to capture the building in about five minutes flat. The captors have amazing aim, able to take out anyone within their sight, unless that person happens to be Cale, who apparently has some sort of bullet repellent.

Then there's the acting. While King acquits herself nicely in a fairly sizable role, both Foxx and Tatum create dull characters. Foxx has been extremely hit and miss with his movie choices, and his pick here is a complete whiff.

The movie is advertised as an action-comedy, but either the jokes are so poorly written that they are indecipherable or Foxx is so disinterested that he cannot be bothered to deliver them with any enthusiasm. The film is completely devoid of humor.

And then there's Tatum. I've complained before that he is essentially a well-sculpted block of wood, unable to portray anything convincingly that doesn't actually fit his personality. Here is no different. For example, there is an early scene in which his Cale has a conversation with a squirrel. The squirrel has more charisma.

This particular clone is directed by Roland Emmerich, the master of crap who was behind such all-time classics as "2012" and "10,000 B.C." Emmerich has specialized in special effects-heavy, plot-light films for the past couple of decades and has seemingly found his niche. Though he hit popcorn fare with "Independence Day" and "Stargate," he is slowly regressing in "talent" with each subsequent film.

I went into "Olympus Has Fallen" expecting disappointment and finding myself surprised by the fun I had. I went into "White House Down" hoping to be surprised and finding myself disappointed. I suppose it's all in how you manage your expectations. For "White House Down," it'd benefit you to keep them low.