In this action movie from apocalyptic blockbuster specialist Roland Emmerich ("Independence Day," "The Day After Tomorrow," "2012"), the White House is successfully invaded by terrorists, the president is captured and no one can save the day other than a Secret Service wannabe (Channing Tatum). If you think you're suffering from deja vu, you can relax: this same plot outline almost exactly fits "Olympus Has Fallen," the Antoine Fuqua film that came out three months ago.
Significant differences: last time, the hero was a disgraced ex-Secret Service agent (Gerard Butler). He had to help rescue the president's child, whereas Tatum has to rescue his own daughter. The white President (Aaron Eckhart) has become a black President (Jamie Foxx), while the black Secret Service bureaucrat (Angela Bassett) is now a white Secret Service bureaucrat (Maggie Gyllenhaal).
The reported budget of "White House Down" was more than twice that of its predecessor, and it shows — though part of the difference may be that Foxx presumably has a higher price than Butler and Eckhart together.
For all the similarities, the new film seems much more specific and likelier to raise hackles: Even before we find out that the president has a beautiful wife and two teenage daughters, the casting of Foxx pretty much suggests one particular president. The unlikable Speaker of the House (Richard Jenkins) resembles John Boehner in attitude; and the vice president (Michael Murphy) is a less forceful presence than Joe Biden, but not that much less.
Subtlety is not often in evidence within this subgenre — Lone Good Guy Redeems Himself, Officially and Personally, Through Vigilante Heroism — or, more simply, "Die Hard" but without Bruce Willis. And while Emmerich has a lighter touch than, say, Michael Bay, he has never ended a film without an overlong festival of special effects mayhem. And he's not about to break the pattern now.
To a small degree, "White House Down" is redeemed by the casting: You can't really go wrong with James Woods as a scowling villain or with Jenkins and Gyllenhaal as just about anything. And in contrast to the humorless Butler and Eckhart, the leads generate the kind of buddy-cop bonding that they've both exhibited before (Foxx in "Django Unchained" and "Miami Vice" and Tatum in the underrated "21 Jump Street").
In general, the screenplay in the new film demonstrates a higher level of craftsmanship. Yes, there are a few questionable plot glosses and unpaid-off setups, but the story details — once you sign on to the ridiculous central idea — are substantially better worked out.
Nonetheless, both releases exploit post-9/11 paranoia without ridiculing its frequent excesses. That's a move that always pays off with domestic audiences. And both deploy the most obvious visual metaphor — yes, a bullet-riddled American flag waving in the wind; and anyone searching for the slightest sign of irony will find it as easily as finding the mobile chemical research Winnebagos in Iraq.
--ANDY KLEIN is the film critic for Marquee. He can also be heard on "FilmWeek" on KPCC-FM (89.3).