Roland Emmerich makes bad movies. Some are amusingly so, like Independence Day. But others, like 10,000 B.C., are just atrocious; if it wasn’t for the wooly mammoth stampede at the end of the movie, there’d be NO reason for this movie to even exist, much less be seen. But I sometimes wonder if he’s in on the joke or not.
Does he know he’s making bad movies, like some meta-jokester who happens to make gargantuan summer spectaculars with nine-figure budgets? Or is he just a bad filmmaker whose movies more often than not make a lot of money at the box office?
Emmerich’s latest is White House Down. The movie tears itself apart at the seams, and it’s because of the inconsistent tone of the performances. Some of the actors, like Jamie Foxx as the President and James Woods as the President’s head of security, seem to think they’re in a comedy, and treat the mayhem as such. Richard Jenkins, as the Speaker of the House, is actually putting in a REAL and heartfelt performance. Maggie Gyllenhaal, as a protegé of James Woods’ character, seems to be waiting for the check to clear so she can move on to more important projects. And Channing Tatum, trying to be Bruce Willis but with less verbal dexterity, just seems lost.
White House Down doesn’t know what it wants to be, and it becomes rather dull because of it. What made Independence Day work, or even 2012, was the fact that all the actors in those movies knew how ridiculous those movies were even if Emmerich didn’t, so at least they brought to the projects a consistent tone, a rather fun one, that carried those movies along past their lapses in logic and basic common sense. White House Down is so schizophrenic, it stifles any forward momentum and just plods along.
When Antoine Fuqua’s Olympus Has Fallen opened earlier in the year, I wondered why Emmerich hadn’t done something similar already (not knowing this movie was already in the pipeline.) Emmerich had already blown up the White House (and shamelessly has one of the characters note that fact in White House Down), so why not take down the U.S. Capitol and the Washington Monument as well? But as it turns out, Fuqua (who will always have a place in heart for making Training Day) made a much better “Die Hard at the White House” rip-off than Emmerich.
That’s because Olympus Has Fallen knows what it wants to be; a nasty, hardcore action movie. Almost nobody is playing for laughs; not Aaron Eckhart or Melissa Leo or Morgan Freeman. The only one awkwardly trying for laughs is Gerard Butler, and it doesn’t work. But Butler brings something to the proceedings as the lead in this type of movie that Channing Tatum just doesn’t have in him.
Channing Tatum seems like such a nice guy. There doesn’t seem to be an ounce of nastiness in him. He just wants to goof around and do a little rough-housing, but it would kill him if somebody got hurt. And that’s wrong for a big action movie like this where the hero has to end the lives of many people in order to be “heroic.” “Big Time Action Star” requires a certain amount of sadism in order for it to be believable. Schwarzenegger has it. Stallone has it. Willis, who may be closest to Tatum in amiability, still has enough angry junkyard dog in him to be believable.
And Gerard Butler DEFINITELY has it. What makes him so good an action hero and so bad in the romantic leads he tries to take on (the types of romantic roles that made Tatum a star), is that he’s always looking for a fight. He’s like the Rancor Monster in Return of the Jedi, a vicious, drooling beast locked in a cage and just waiting to eat some unfortunate pig-guard or something. It’s why he’s so good in 300; you believe he wants to take on the entire Persian army almost singlehandedly. And that’s why he’s terrible in romantic movies; you don’t know if he wants to seduce his co-stars or eat them.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying a person has to be sadistic in order to be heroic in real life, only in this type of action movie. And Tatum is just too nice a guy and not enough of an actor for this type of role. He may look the part with his shirt hanging off and carrying heavy artillery, but not when he has to fire the darn things.
Olympus Has Fallen does have an unfortunate flaw: its relentless xenophobia. And while White House Down replaces that movie’s North Korean villains with homegrown baddies (disgruntled ex-military and the ubiquitous Military Industrial Complex), this movie has a flaw just as unfortunate: it puts a child at danger. Constantly. She’s Tatum’s estranged daughter, and played by Joey King. Tatum’s character, John Cale, tries to win brownie points with her by taking her to the White House with him as he goes to interview to become part of the President’s Secret Service detail. And while her character plays an important part of the rescue effort by broadcasting the bad guys in action through her YouTube “don’t call it a blog” Channel, it seems like every other scene she’s in, somebody is pointing a gun at her head. This type of ploy in order to get audience sympathy is not only lazy, it’s just wrong.
Every few years, we get movies with similar high-concepts released within a few months of each other. There was The Illusionist, an indie written and directed by Neil Burger followed by The Prestige, financed by Warner Brothers and written and directed by Christopher Nolan. We also had Deep Impact, the smaller, more thoughtful death-by-asteroid pic directed by Mimi Leder, who directed many episodes of television’s ER, followed by Armageddon, directed by that juvenile master of disaster, Michael Bay (remember, this movie came out the same year as Emmerich’s terrible remake of Godzilla, and one of the opening scenes had a bulldog mounting an inflatable Godzilla doll? Classy….) Usually, I tend to go for the smaller version of the high-concept, except for Armageddon, and that’s just because I’m inordinately fascinated by Bay’s militant immaturity.
And this year, the smaller Olympus Has Fallen is better than Emmerich’s big summer release. Emmerich is going back to what worked before and making Independence Day 2 for the summer of 2015. Will Smith said he won’t be back, but that’s just as well. He seems to have lost his sense of humor about himself, and who needs all that seriousness putting a damper on all the potentially kitschy fun.