S Die Hard was a brilliant concept for an action movie that's been much duplicated since: Die Hard on a bus (Speed); Die Hard in a hockey rink (Sudden Death); Die Hard on a battleship (Under Siege). But what a lot of the copycats forget is that it's not the claustrophobic location that made the original film so great, but the guy running around in it. John McClane was just an ordinary guy, but it was Bruce Willis' charm and smart-ass humor that energized the character. He didn't seem like your typical bulked-up action hero—after all, he was played by the dude from Moonlighting—and that made his adventures all the more human-scaled and weirdly relatable.
In White House Down, Channing Tatum comes as close to a Willis-like everyman quality as any Die Hard clone's star has. This is the second of two "Die Hard at the White House" movies out this year, and it's a lot better than the first, Olympus Has Fallen, and much of the credit has to go to Tatum. His soulful, easygoing demeanor has been an asset in everything from Magic Mike to 21 Jump Street, and even when he's in so-so stuff like Step Up and The Vow, he radiates such an unfussy sweetness that you end up liking him even if you don't like the movie. I felt that way through a lot of White House Down. Tatum has the right earnest-but-silly attitude for this latest Roland Emmerich disaster blitzkrieg, but the movie lets him down.
Tatum plays John Cale, a D.C. cop who longs to be part of the Secret Service but doesn't have the credentials or flashy education to qualify. (If that's not enough motivation to prove himself, Cale also has to sit through two different scenes where other characters lay out his personal failings—a convenient checklist of inner obstacles he can overcome if he should, let's say, have to save the President of the United States from armed-to-the-teeth terrorists.)
On a tour of the White House with his sullen daughter Emily (Joey King), Cale becomes the one man inside the building who can stop a gaggle of bad guys led by the traitorous head of presidential security (James Woods). Blowing up the Capitol building as a distraction before taking the White House, Woods and his men are out to capture the president (Jamie Foxx) for reasons that aren't entirely clear at the outset. Once Cale, in search of his wayward daughter, rescues the president from the baddies, a chase through the White House begins.
White House Down was written by James Vanderbilt (Zodiac, The Amazing Spider-Man), and for a while the movie has just the right tone of cheeky professionalism that you want from a big summer blockbuster like this. In comparison to the adrenalized nonsense of Michael Bay and his ilk, Emmerich has always been somewhat restrained in his approach—an amazing thing to say, I realize, considering just how much carnage this man has unleashed in his movies. But there's always been a playful lightness to his mayhem that makes enjoyable junk like Independence Day feel fun rather than oppressive. (And unlike this summer's movies, such as Star Trek Into Darkness and Man of Steel, which aim for a realistic feel, there's no tinge of guilt when you see thousands of anonymous bystanders slaughtered in an Emmerich movie: His films operate on a level of pure escapist fantasy.)
The filmmakers have conceived White House Down as almost a Die Hard buddy-cop movie. (So, Die Hard With a Vengeance but in the White House?) And Tatum and Foxx make for a relatively engaging combo, although this is another of those films that insists that two people in constant mortal danger will deliver mediocre quips while dodging machine gun fire.
It's not the absurdity that's off-putting—you have to sorta love a movie that has a newscaster breathlessly announce, "The president has a rocket-launcher!"—it's that Emmerich is cycling through all the old action-thriller cliches without bringing much new to them. Whether it's the anxious war-room strategizing done by Maggie Gyllenhaal and Richard Jenkins or the hide-and-seek machinations within the White House, you've seen just about every element of White House Down somewhere else—and it probably seemed fresher then. The movie even pulls out the precocious-kid and eccentric-foreign-computer-genius character tropes.
Early in Emmerich's career, his films had a certain crazy enthusiasm, as if he couldn't believe he was being allowed to make such pure-id spectacles. White House Down has some of the old goofiness, but it's also disappointingly workmanlike. Frankly, it's Tatum, not Emmerich, who now has the giddy enthusiasm. This isn't his best performance, but his role as Cale is his most legitimately movie-star turn, definitely more so than the G.I. Joe films. He's loose and confident, he doesn't take things too seriously, and yet you believe that he knows how to kill lots of people. Now, can't Hollywood find better blockbusters for him?
Grierson & Leitch is a regular column about the movies. Follow us on Twitter, @griersonleitch.