After Die Hard came out in 1988, action movies slowly began migrating from far-flung locales to passenger planes, aircraft carriers, hockey stadiums, and public buses. Among other things, John McTiernan’s masterpiece expertly raised the stakes by lowering the scope of the action movie, understanding that 20 indistinguishable soldiers being killed by Rambo is one thing, but a one-on-one fight with a villain threatening not the world but just the life of a loved one is another.
Which is the primary reason White House Down doesn’t work: The movie limits itself to one general setting but treats it like a snow-globe. The basic details for a “close-quarters” action movie are there — i.e. guys in air vents, guys in elevator shafts, and household furniture becoming a vital source for cover — but they’re interrupted by shallow political statements, Javelin missiles, nuclear missiles, and an exploding Air Force One.
It really shouldn’t be a surprise that Roland Emmerich doesn’t understand how the stakes in his movie are high, yes, but artificial. The movie suggests just saving a daughter or just saving the leader of the free world isn’t enough. Nowadays, an action movie worth its salt has to save the White House, the world, and a broken relationship in the 90-minute running time.
Some of the best action movies to come out the past few years have strived to be anything but epic. The Raid: Redemption is simply about a group of police officers trying to make it out of a drug lord’s stronghold alive. Taken follows a man trying to get his daughter back. Even Air Force One, a parent of White House Down, shows us that a movie focused on its close-quarters setting, no matter how implausible, can still be taut.
The line between epic and myopic is becoming blurred in action movies, where the United States president as Lethal Weapon’s Murtaugh is no longer a fresh take but a novelty item, an ornament. It’s summer, sure, and audiences are more likely looking for comfort from the heat than an original cinematic experience, but the trend among action movies now is to do it bigger, flashier, and shallower. The October and November dramas, the Oscar potentials, can play in the deep end while action movies come up with more creative ways to blow things up.
And as more action movies take the buffet-style, White House Down approach to storytelling, I wonder how big a cinematic explosion needs to be if there’s no one watching it. The more 9/11 imagery, unoriginal concepts, and general staleness the genre packs into the traditional action movie, the less likely people are going to want to watch it. The movie industry needs to understand that action movies don’t need to be big to be good, and it also has to acknowledge that action movies are not superhero movies. Let Superman save the world — that’s what he does. Don’t make John McClane into Superman (too late). It’s OK for a hero to just want his family safe.
Besides, given Emmerich’s penchant for explosions he’s already blown the White House up, and it was better than White House Down.