While comparisons to Bruce Willis' action franchise are apt, the simple truth is that White House Down is more Die Hard than Die Hard has been in years. It has nothing to do with making Tatum into an invincible superhero as Die Hard's John McClane is now, but making him a believable character we can relate to. His character, a struggling war veteran/single dad John Cale isn't perfect, whether he's trying to bond with his daughter (Joey King), interviewing for a job in the Secret Service, or dodging terrorist gunfire. He's a regular guy, and despite his Adonis good looks, Tatum knows his way around playing blue collar. Another thing working in his favor? He seems to be having fun. When was the last time Willis seemed remotely interested in anything?
Tatum throws himself into the role of Cale, a DC Capital Police Officer protecting the Speaker of the House (Richard Jenkins), while simultaneously hoping to land a job on the presidential detail. His relationship with his daughter is on the skids, but since she's a total dork for current President James Sawyer (Jamie Foxx channeling Barack Obama), Cale thinks protecting her hero will get him back in her good graces. Failing to land the job because he's just too darn reckless (aren't they all?) for the Secret Service, he at least manages to use his charm to get a White House tour for his daughter. Of course that's when the terrorists strike, and it's a more surgical precision strike than Olympus Has Fallen's ten-minute bonanza of bombs and bloodshed. They're led by a comical tech geek (Jimmi Simpson) who pumps opera while he hacks into the system, and a stone-faced mercenary (Jason Clarke, in the opposite of his Zero Dark Thirty role) who has a habit of killing ineffectual politicians.
“You just killed the Secretary of Defense!”
“Well, he wasn’t doing a very good job.”
So of course it's up to Cale to quiet those who underestimate him, including Secret Service agents played by Maggie Gyllenhaal and James Woods, rescue the President and his daughter, and save freedom as we know it or something like that. Not exactly weighty stuff, but the script by James Vanderbilt is smarter than one would think. While a cautionary message about the military industrial complex is overly simplistic, Emmerich and Vanderbilt are smart enough to know exactly how absurd the whole situation is. Emmerich throws in an Independence Day joke basically because he's can, and has a limo doing doughnuts on the White House lawn during a car chase. Any film that has the President as a geeky sidekick, wielding a rocket launcher no less, knows not to take itself too seriously.
Tatum and Foxx trade witty, spirited banter like a couple of old buddy comedy professionals, and it's kind of hilarious to watch bad ass Django as a geeky politician who doesn't like anybody touching his Air Jordans. Tatum is simply a star, there's no other way to put it. He has a quality that makes him tough to dislike but easy to cheer on, which makes him a darn effective action hero. He's young, physical, and every now and then you catch a hint that he's in on the joke of this film as well. The rest of the cast is solid if unspectacular, but Nicolas Wright is perfect as the sort of bizarre character you only see in a movie like this. He plays an obsessive White House tour guide who occasionally tempts fate by complaining about the priceless artifacts the terrorists are ruining, and how dare they put their feet up on the table! James Woods is a lot like Ray Liotta now. As soon as you see him it's obvious right away what kind of character he is, and he's the type to refuse a slice of retirement cake. Who in their right mind would turn down cake??? James Woods would.
Since he can't pull off his iconic move and just blow up the White House outright, Emmerich ruins every other DC monument like a kid blowing up his action figures, and it all looks spectacular. He's made some pretty awful movies in the past....ok, practically everything he's done is terrible, but Emmerich knows big action carefully orchestrated destruction. The scale of it makes Olympus Has Fallen look like a pale imitator. You'd never know the film wasn't shot in the Nation's Capital, and the layout inside the White House is far more accurate than it has any need to be. Everything's going to be destroyed anyway, right?