Only three months after “Olympus Has Fallen,” Hollywood’s second assault on 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue takes place in “White House Down.” The uncanny thing is how many plot points the two versions have in common.
Why Hollywood is obsessed with this topic is uncertain. But since we have two action-thrillers about attacks on America’s most famous building, let’s compare and contrast.
I say the villains make much more sense in “Olympus.” North Koreans, as everyone knows, are crazy. Or at least their leadership is.
“White House Down” instead seems to have drawn its villains from a grab bag of cinema badasses — a redneck racist, whacko war vets, disgruntled government employees and a D.C. politician, the latter being a villain everyone can get behind.
Late in the movie you get confirmation of what you all along suspect: These bad guys aren’t even on the same page about their mission.
Of course, the movie tries for a while to camouflage the real villains but I think most viewers will be ahead of the moviemakers in this area.
The similar plot points? The first film had as its hero a “disgraced” Secret Service man while the new one has Channing Tatum play an off-duty D.C. cop —ex-military who wants to be Secret Service. He has brought his daughter along for a job interview combined with a White House tour. Okay, that’s stretching things to get the little girl inside the building for the assault.
You see both films do not believe the rescue of the U.S. President is sufficient to generate audience enthusiasm; a child must be in jeopardy as well. Also the presidential line of succession gets a real workout and launch codes for missiles across the nation are the ultimate target for both teams of baddies.
There is one key difference between the movies, however. “Olympus Has Fallen” was a joke. “White House Down” actually works.
Director Roland Emmerich keeps applying steady pressure to the accelerator with each passing minute, upping the ante but winning each bet that he can top himself.
(On a side note, Emmerich must have been seriously mistreated during his own White House tour since this is his second destruction of the building following up on “Independence Day.” )
Of course, it helps that he has much better actors in Channing as the action hero, Jamie Foxx as the action president, Maggie Gyllenhaal as a special Secret Service agent, James Woods as an outgoing Secret Service head and Joey King as Channing’s daughter.
The upgrade in acting can only improve an action movie as silly as this one. You may not take the story seriously — indeed the film kids itself every chance it gets — but these actors sell each individual sequence by their straight-faced intensity, own stunt work and all-around charisma.
James Vanderbilt’s screenplay keeps the momentum up once the attack gets under way and piles on incidents and character byplay to maximize the tension.
Oh sure, plot holes are huge and characters keep finding things in all the rubble that miraculously lead them to the next big sequence. But the script distracts the viewer from such incongruities by pairing off the actors into dynamic units within the tall tale.
First there is Channing’s John Cale, an everyday guy challenged to win back his daughter’s love following a divorce. He gets paired with Foxx’s President Sawyer, a man with a controversial foreign-affairs agenda and a burning desire to make history.
Suddenly they’re thrust into a buddy action film where any minute may be their last.
Gyllenhaal’s Special Agent Carol Finnerty gets paired with Cale in a different way — on the other end of emergency phone conversations. She is caught outside the White House during the emergency while trying to get the Speaker of the House (Richard Jenkins) to safety.
Without giving too much away, Woods’ retiring Secret Service head forms an antagonistic duo with the lead villain, Emil Stenz (Jason Clarke), a Special Forces guy gone to the dark side.
Even King as Cale’s daughter, Emily — one of those amazing child actors Hollywood comes up with every now and then — makes an interesting and often amusing pair with Donnie (Nicolas Wright), the White House guide caught up in the assault and taken as hostage.
There is a geek techie, who can’t wait to get to the WH computer system. That would be Jimmi Simpson’s candy-sucking Tyler. And Michael Murphy looks mostly befuddled as the vice president who gets suddenly sworn into office.
Kirk M. Petruccell’s design of the exteriors and interiors of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, built across acres of land in Montreal, takes you behind the scenes for locations both well known and secret.
(The movie has a bit of fun with whether or not tunnels exist under the White House where Marilyn Monroe may have snuck into the building.)
And so it goes with Marine One, the presidential limousine, the South Portico and South Lawn of the White House, all of which come into play as the story sprawls every which way.
Cinematographer Anna J. Foerster uses a wide lens to take in all the action so that stunts and visual effects blend as invisibly as possible.
Ultimately, “White House Down” may be remembered as the movie that turned Channing Tatum into a star —assuming he hasn’t already ascended to that status. He’s got the looks, athletic ability, charm and grace that go hand in glove with stardom.
For all its camp silliness, this movie lets him bring all these factors into play. Now he needs to find a role in a serious, awards-season movie. Perhaps the upcoming “Foxcatcher?”
Opens: June 28, 2013 (Columbia Pictures)
Production companies: A Mythology Entertainment/Centropolis Entertainment production
Cast: Channing Tatum, Jamie Foxx, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Jason Clarke, Richard Jenkins, James Woods, Nicolas Wright, Jimmi Simpson, Michael Murphy, Rachelle Lefevre, Lance Reddick, Matt Craven
Director: Roland Emmerich
Screenwriter: James Vanderbilt
Producers: Bradley J. Fischer, Harald Kloser, James Vanderbilt, Larry Franco, Laeta Kalogridis
Executive producers: Ute Emmerich, Channing Tatum, Reid Carolin
Director of photography: Anna J. Foerster
Production designer: Kirk M. Petruccelli
Music: Thomas Wander & Harald Kloser
Costume designer: Lisy Christi
Editor: Adam Wolfe
PG-13 rating, 132 minutes