“WHITE HOUSE DOWN” (2013) Review

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“WHITE HOUSE DOWN” (2013) Review

When it first hit the movie theaters during the summer of 2013, “WHITE HOUSE DOWN” received a good deal of flak from movie critics determined to justified its failure to become a box office hit. But there were others who had offered another reason why the movie flopped in the U.S.  And that reason centered around the release of another film some three months earlier called “OLYMPUS HAS FALLEN”.

Like the Gerard Butler film, “WHITE HOUSE DOWN” focused upon an assault and invasion of the White House by a group of paramilitary terrorists. The movie begins with U.S. President James Sawyer proposing a controversial peace treaty between allied countries to remove military forces from the Middle East. One of the opponents of the treaty is Speaker of the House, Congressman Eli Raphelson, who is guarded by U.S. Capitol police officer John Cale. Hoping to impress his estranged daughter Emily following his divorce, John attempts to apply for a job with the U.S. Secret Service. He takes Emily to the White House for an interview with his former college schoolmate, Secret Service schoolmate, Carol Finnerty. Unfortunately for John, Carol rejects his application, claiming that his lack of respect for authority and inability to follow through with official reports makes him unqualified for the job.

Following his interview, John joins Emily on a tour of the White House, a paramilitary terrorist sets off a bomb in the rotunda of the Capitol building. Both Congressman Raphelson and Vice-President Alvin Hammond are among those who manage to safely escape. However, the Capitol bombing proves to be a distraction for a more important mission for his colleagues – namely the takeover the White House. Although the latter is officially locked down by the Secret Service following the Capitol bombing, a paramilitary group consisting of ex-servicemen and a computer hacker that managed to infiltrate the White House as janitors, proceed to take over the White House. Their leader is a disavowed ex-Delta Force member named Emil Stenz, who proved to be a hot head. Not only do the terrorists take a group of tourists – including Emily – hostage; they nearly kidnap President Sawyer with the help of Secret Service Agent Martin Walker, Head of the Presidential Detail. Walker sought revenge for the death of a son who had died in an aborted black op mission for the U.S. Army. Fortunately, John manages to rescue President Sawyer before Walker and the terrorists can use him to access the nuclear football for nefarious means. Unfortunately for John and Sawyer, they are trapped inside the White House with no way to get out.

Unlike a good number of moviegoers, I did not readily accept the opinion that “WHITE HOUSE DOWN” was a bad movie. Yes, it had its flaws. After all, it is a Roland Emmerich film. And like other Emmerich films, it possessed the usual cliches – a divorced main character, an annoyingly precocious child character, and slightly cheesy dialogue. The biggest flaw in the movie proved to be a plot point that allowed John and his daughter to get swept into the action inside the White House – a tour of the latter. Apparently, screenwriter James Vanderbilt forgot that White House tours have been a thing of the past since the September 11 attacks, twelve years ago. And I found Carol Finnerty’s presence with the Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the Speaker of the House something of a stretch, considering that she is not the Secret Service’s Head of the Presidential Detail, let alone head of the agency. But despite these flaws, I still enjoyed the movie.

“WHITE HOUSE DOWN” had its virtues. First of all, it benefited from a strong chemistry between leads Channing Tatum and Jamie Foxx, who portrayed John Cale and President James Walker. Two, Vanderbilt’s script did not make the mistake of turning the President Walker character into a highly skilled action man, like Harrison Ford in “AIR FORCE ONE”. Although he managed to avoid spending most of the film as a hostage, Foxx’s Walker made mistakes that struck me as natural for one not to used to violent action. “WHITE HOUSE DOWN” also featured some first-rate action. My favorite scenes turned out to be the initial takeover of the White House by Stenz and his men; John’s rescue of President Walker; and the chase sequence on the White House lawn, with John and President Walker inside a Presidential limousine. The biggest virtue of “WHITE HOUSE DOWN” is that the terrorists managed to infiltrate the White House with inside help – namely Secret Service Agent Walker. In the post 9/11 world, I would have found it impossible to accept a terrorist takeover of the White House without such help.

Despite the occasionally cheesy dialogue that marred “WHITE HOUSE DOWN”, I was relieved to see that the cast managed to rise above such flaws. As I stated earlier, the movie did benefit from a strong chemistry between Tatum and Foxx. And both actors gave first-rate performances that blend good, solid comedy with well-acted drama. I also found the development of their on-screen relationship very satisfying. And Foxx managed to utter one of my favorite lines in the entire film. Maggie Gyllenhaal gave a strong performance as the no-nonsense Carol Finnerty. I could also say the same about Lance Reddick, who portrayed the equally no-nonsense Joint Chiefs Vice Chairman General Caufield. I do not recall ever seeing Jason Clarke in a villainous role before, but I must admit that he gave a scary performance as leader of the terrorist, Emil Stanz. Jimmi Simpson, on the other hand, was quite funny as computer hacker Skip Tyler. And Richard Jenkins struck me as very effective in his performance as Speaker of the House Eli Raphelson, who found himself with more authority than he was used to. There were a few performances that did rub me the wrong way. I think Zoey King, who portrayed Emily Cale, is a talented actress, but I feel that not even she was able to rise above the precocious dialogue and scenes that Vanderbilt dumped on her. Nicholas Wright’s performance as White House tour guide Donnie did not strike me as funny . . . only annoying. Kevin Rankin’s portrayal of the uber-aggressive terrorist Carl Killick seemed both hammy and wince-inducing to me.

When I saw “WHITE HOUSE DOWN” at the movie theater, the audience broke into an applause when the film ended. Minutes later, I found myself in one of the theater’s restrooms and overheard a woman claimed that although she liked the movie, she noticed that it bore a strong resemblance to “OLYMPUS HAS FALLEN”. And she was right. Both movies were about terrorists taking over the White House in order to gain control of the President and his defense codes. Both movies featured female Secret Service personnel trying to help the hero. Both movies featured the Vice-President getting killed and the Speaker of the House becoming the new Head of State. And both featured American elite forces making a failed attempt to save the White House from terrorists. I liked “OLYMPUS HAS FALLEN”, but I feel that it was marred by one major flaw – the North Korean terrorists lacked any real inside help and was able to acquire top-secret military technology on their own. This led the Gerard Butler movie resembling some one-note anti-Communist propaganda film. “WHITE HOUSE DOWN” managed to avoid this major trap by allowing the terrorists – who were American-born – receive some serious inside help from within the U.S. government. And this is why I rate “WHITE HOUSE DOWN” over “OLYMPUS HAS FALLEN”.

“WHITE HOUSE DOWN” had its flaws. But it also possessed a decent story, first-rate action and some solid acting by a cast led by Channing Tatum and Jamie Foxx; thanks to director Roland Emmerich. And although its virtues outweighed its flaw, I suspect that in the end, “WHITE HOUSE DOWN” became a victim of bad timing. Pity. I feel it deserved a better fate.

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“JACK REACHER” (2012) Review

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“JACK REACHER” (2012) Review

British author Lee Childs (aka Jim Grant) wrote a series of novels featuring a former U.S. Army Military police officer turned drifter, who is occassionally hired to investigate difficult cases. One of those turned out to be the 2005 novel, “One Shot”, which was recently adapted as a motion picture that stars Tom Cruise. 

When writer/director Christopher McQuarrie decided to adapt “One Shot” as a movie, one of the first things he did was change the story’s title and location. The story became “JACK REACHER” and the setting was changed from a small Indiana city to Pittsburg, Pennsylvania. Like the novel, “JACK REACHER” began with the death of five random people by a sniper firing from a parking garage. Police detective Emerson finds evidence pointing a a former Army sharpshooter named James Barr, who was immediately arrested. Instead of confessing to the crime, Barr asked the police and District Attorney Alex Rodin to get drifter and former Army police Jack Reacher to help him. Reacher finally contacted Barr’s attorney, Rodin’s daughter, Helen Rodin. Reacher believed that Barr was guilty, because the latter had originally went on a killing spree during his last tour in Iraq, but got off on a technicality due to his victims being guilty of the gang rape of several Iraqi women. But Reacher’s investigation of the crime scene, along with an encounter with local thugs hired to scare him off, made him realized that Barr had been framed and that the killing spree was merely a cover up for a specific victim.

In the end, “JACK REACHER” proved to be a first-rate action thriller that I enjoyed very much. I would never consider the movie to be one of the best starring Tom Cruise. The basic narrative for “JACK REACHER” did not strike me as particularly original. I have come across similar action or mystery tales in which a series of killings hid one particular murder. But I must admit this particular story presented it in a particularly original way – especially with such a non-conformist like Reacher serving as investigator. There were other aspects of the movie that impressed me. One, I found the opening sequence featuring the sniper’s killing of the five people not only gruesome, but also nail biting. The tension in this particular sequence seemed ten-fold, when it looked as if one of the sniper’s victims might end up being a young child. Once Reacher realized that either Detective Emerson or District Attorney Rodin may be working for the man behind the shootings, the reek of law enforcement reeked throughout the film’s second half, increasing the movie’s tension ten fold. The movie also benefited from a first-rate, three-way car chase through the streets of Pittsburgh; with the police chasing Reacher for the murder of a young woman, and Reacher chasing two of the bad guys. The chase sequence also emphasized Caleb Deschanel’s colorful photography of Pittsburgh, a city that has struck me as quite charming during the past two decades.

There were a few aspects of “JACK REACHER” that troubled me. I wish that McQuarrie’s script had allowed Cruise’s Jack Reacher and Rosamund Pike’s Helen Rodin to consummate the sexual tension between them . . . at least once. I did not require the movie to end with them as a newly established couple. But I figured that one night between the sheets would not have hurt. Honestly! I found myself inwardly screaming “Get a room!” every time it looked as if they were about to lock lips. But the bigger problem for me turned out to be the main villain – a former Soviet prisoner-turned-Russian mobster known as the Zec. Do not get me wrong. I believe that director-actor Werner Herzog gave an exceptionally chilly performance as the mobster. But . . . I could not help but wonder if author Lee Childs and later, MacQuarrie tried too hard to portray him as some kind of cold monster, willing to do anything to survive . . . even chew off his fingers while in prison, in order to prevent himself from succumbing to gangrene. The Zec even forces one minion to either chew off a finger or face death for the latter’s mishandling of Reacher. I would have been impressed if it were not for the fact that the willingness to do anything to survive . . . or self-preservation is something of which just about every human being is capable. It is simply human nature. And in the end, I was not that impressed by the Zec. Also, I could have sworn that the Zec and his men were carrying out a contract on behalf of someone else. I certainly got that impression in his first scene, which I eventually found rather misleading.

However, I was impressed by the film’s cast. I have already commented on Werner Herzog’s portrayal of the mobster called the Zec. Australian actor Jai Courtney gave an equally chilling performance as Charlie, the Zec’s main henchman and the shooter who kill those five people, in cold blood, in the opening scene. Robert Duvall made an entertaining addition to the cast as a former USMC veteran, who operated a gun shop frequented by the main suspect and the real killer. The year 2012 seemed to be the one for British actor David Oyelowo. He started out the year in “RED TAILS”(okay, not much of a start), but he finished out the year with an appearance in “LINCOLN” and a major role in this film. And I was very impressed by his portrayal of Detective Emerson. One, Oyelowo seemed to have a pretty good grasp of an American accent. And two, I found his portrayal of the police detective to be deliciously complex and murky. I could also say the same for Richard Jenkins, who gave a slightly twisted and sardonic portrayal as District Attorney Rodin. It seemed a pity that his appearances in the film seemed slightly limited.

It occurred to me that I have not seen Rosamund Pike in a major film production in quite a while. I do recall that she had appeared as Sam Worthington’s leading lady in “WRATH OF THE TITANS”. But I would rather forget about that particular film. Thankfully, she was much more memorable as Helen Rodin, the feisty defense attorney who hired Reacher. She possessed a solid American accent and more importantly, I enjoyed the way Pike infused both professionalism and emotion into her character. And her screen chemistry with Tom Cruise reeked with sexuality. Although I would not consider “JACK REACHER” to be among Cruise’s top films, I must admit that I think his role as the eccentric former Army investigator might prove to be one of his better roles. I really enjoyed Cruise’s performance as Reacher. Not only did he maintain the character’s eccentricity, but he also projected a subtle weariness that made me understand the character’s disappointment with society at large. He also infused a good deal of subtle humor that struck me as both entertaining and off-kilter. But more importantly, Cruise did a great job in projecting the character’s unstoppable force, without having to be the same height (6’5″) as the literary Reacher.

Like I said, I would not view “JACK REACHER” as one of the most memorable action movies I have ever seen. But I certainly would not regard it as mediocre. It possessed a solid story, written and directed by Christopher MacQuarrie. The movie also benefited from first-rate performances by a cast led by Tom Cruise in the title character.

“THE KINGDOM” (2007) Review

“THE KINGDOM” (2007) Movie Review

Based upon a real life incident regarding a terrorist attacks in Saudi Arabia (Riyadh Compound Bombings), ”THE KINGDOM” tells the story of an FBI Counterterrorist unit sent to Saudi Arabia to investigate a terrorist attack upon an American compound in Saudi Arabia. Directed by Peter Berg (”FRIDAY NIGHTS LIGHTS”) and produced by Michael Mann, the movie starred Jamie Foxx, Jennifer Garner, Chris Cooper and Jason Bateman.

The main question is . . . did I like ”THE KINGDOM”? And the answer is yes. In fact, I had enjoyed it very much. It had plenty of suspense, drama and especially action that should not leave anyone disappointed. Most of the story seemed to be focused upon the theme of American cops forced to deal with their country’s own bureaucacy and with the hostility of foreign cops who resent the idea of Americans invading their turf. There have been other Hollywood crime dramas with similar themes. But in “THE KINGDOM”, this theme is intensified due to the story’s setting – namely Saudi Arabia and the Middle East culture and the current concern of terrorism. And I feel that screenwriters Matthew Michael Carnahan and Michael Mann did a great job.

The entire cast is first-rate . . . especially Jamie Foxx as FBI Agent Ronald Fleury and Ashraf Barhom as Col. Faris Al-Ghazi of the Saudi police, who managed to create a very credible relationship of two men whose different cultures would automatically make them enemies during this time in history. Yet slowly . . . surely, they managed to form a close friendship. My only problem with the casting was Chris Cooper. His character seemed a bit irrelevant and a little hammy at times.

About a month before the movie was released in the theaters, someone had written a review of the movie and considered it a potential for Academy Award nominations. To be honest, I do not know if I would agree with that assessment. As good as ”THE KINGDOM” was, I never saw it as the type of film that would earn any award nominations. At least of Oscar caliber. To me, it was simply a solid action-drama with a first-rate cast and good, solid writing. Worthy of an entertaining trip to your local movie theater or renting from Netflix.