Die Hard in the White House: Double Feature

OLYMPUS HAS FALLEN (2013, Antoine Fuqua): 4/10    |     WHITE HOUSE DOWN (2013, Roland Emmerich): 5/10

[spoilers for both films follow, I guess, as if it matters]

It’s not uncommon for Hollywood to make two films in a short period of time with the same subject matter. And when these two films came out, the press remained the same: let’s talk about how it’s happened before and how the box office will be influenced! Then people would bring up DANTE’S PEAK and VOLCANO (in 1997), a pair of 1998 dualities (ANTZ and A BUG’S LIFE; DEEP IMPACT and ARMAGEDDON), and maybe even 2005’s CAPOTE vs. 2006’s INFAMOUS.

Two years ago, I waited until 2011’s dual fuck-buddies rom-coms (NO STRINGS ATTACHED and FRIENDS WITH BENEFITS) came out on disc and watched a double feature one fateful night — that one had a clear winner, and it was good that I watched them in order of release date because the later one (FWB) was far better than its predecessor: a clever script and great chemistry between its leads. This time I did the same thing with OHF and WHD and again the later one was better, but not by much. Both films are absurd and undeniably stupid, and both of them do have their moments of silly entertainment. But WHD gets the slight edge here thanks to its comic sensibilities (the tones are about the only things separating these frighteningly identical films) and the fact that its PG-13 childishness gives it a more properly playful vibe, vs. the gruesome, gory, R-rated self-seriousness of OHF.

Both films clearly draw from DIE HARD and not even in a very subtle way. WHD is more overt with its references: the glasses-wearing hacker cackling with glee at his computer terminal; the white-tank-top-clad estranged hero trying to gain back the respect of his ex-wife; the count-to-three assassinations of big-wig hostages; the blow-the-roof ploy by the terrorists that gets complicated by “good-guy” choppers coming to the rescue and firing on the hero only to be shot down by terrorists; the black-limo-crashing-through-the-gates climax; the bad guys using the we’ve-got-your-loved-one-in-custody card to get to the hero; the shoelessness of a hero (allowing for WHD’s one wry diversion: instead of leaving President Jamie Foxx barefoot a la McClane after he loses a shoe in the elevator, he goes for his Air Jordans in the presidential closet); the tend-to-your-wound scene that allows a slowing of the pace to grant a white-hero-black-hero male-bonding conversation; the vague anti-news-media sentiments (CNN covering the story gives both films’ villains the identity of the hero’s loved one in captivity)… the list really does go on and on. At one point I couldn’t even tell if WHD felt more like OHF or DIE HARD itself.

OHF starts off with an effective prologue, even if it sets the tone for the ridiculousness of the action scenes. Then Gerard Butler starts getting a lot of screen time and the movie goes downhill fast. This is only the second time I’ve seen Butler in a movie (the other being Guy Ritchie’s forgettable ROCKNROLLA) and it turns out I haven’t been missing anything. He isn’t charismatic — there’s something vaguely robotic about him even when he tries to show emotion. His performance in this movie is so forgettably workmanlike. You don’t root against him, but he’s never the most likable or interesting person on screen. Another huge flaw with OHF is its effects. I’m not sure what the budget was on it, but the CG looks as cheap as any video game. It’s hard to find a shot that isn’t against a green screen backdrop. Now I don’t expect film crews to be able to shoot on location at the White House or construct a to-scale set that has everything the script requires — but absolutely every visual necessity here is solved by CG. And I don’t like video games.

Emmerich is a pioneer of great CG disaster, and though WHD doesn’t have a lot more practical realism than OHF, at least the CG looks better and less video game-ish. THE DAY AFTER TOMORROW and 2012 are both silly and mediocre disaster films, but their destruction and mayhem always seemed top-of-the-line for Hollywood at the moment. The same is true of WHD, though again its PG-13 cartoonishness means it doesn’t really have the scale and spectacle of annihilation that OHF has going for it. OHF’s first-act siege on the White House is pretty grand aside from the CG fakery: the amount of action and extensive length of it keeps you awake while you’re counting the number of impossible stupidities in involves. WHD, however, has Channing Tatum and Jamie Foxx — assets that no amount of special effects can compete with; no matter how dumb the dialogue or how unbelievable the characterization, Foxx makes his President a joy to watch and the buddy-chemistry with Tatum is perfectly fine.

But a good DIE HARD movie needs a good villain, and neither movie has an especially memorable one. At least WHD has the energetic James Woods and the talented Jason Clarke (not to mention the hilariously ridiculous twist of having Speaker of the House Richard Jenkins in WHD be a surprise traitor), whereas OHF merely has Rick Yune and Dylan McDermott as baddies — when both of your bad guys could also have been love interests in a Jennifer Aniston rom-com, you’re in trouble. Melissa Leo does some classic work in a laughably overheated performance full of patriotism and grit in OHF, which exemplifies that movie’s unreal swelling of civic pride and one-note nationalism. And what would these films be without Robert Forster and Lance Reddick as stern, war-mongering military leaders?

One final note: DIE HARD was such a success that they slapped together a sequel that moved the action from L.A. to D.C. (and called it DIE HARD 2: DIE HARDER); similarly, OHF did so well (nearly $100M in domestic B.O.) that they’ve greenlit LONDON HAS FALLEN, where presumably Secret Service Agent Butler and his chinny president Aaron Eckhart will be in London to foil some more terrorists. All that’s left is for Tatum and Foxx to announce the filming of PALACE OF WESTMINSTER DOWN.

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