"Get your hands off my Jordans!"
President James Sawyer (Jamie Foxx)
On the eve of an historical agreement between the United States and the Middle Eastern powers, in a landmark peace deal that will see a major withdrawal of American troops from the region, a well financed and heavily armed group of mercenaries seize control of the White House, capturing President James Sawyer and numerous tourists within. Fortunately the terrorists did not count on Officer John Cale, visiting the White House with his daughter after a failed job interview with the Secret Service. As the US government try to get a handle on what is going on, Cale and the president team up to rescue the hostages before a full air strike is launched against the most famous address in the world - little realizing how deep the level of treachery runs through 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue…
Roland Emmerich is one of those directors whose body of work is an acquired taste for certain movie goers. Actually, scratch that… People HATE Roland Emmerich movies. It is rather unique for a film maker to have so much vitriol spat at him from all angles, whether he is tackling alien invasions or re-writing Shakespearean history. The "Master of Disaster" (not always a reference to the genre of his movies) has hardly aided his cause with a recent string of po-faced thrillers that are rather lacking in thrill. So it is unsurprising that his latest movie has already split audiences and critics in two, with many people already
determined to hate it. This would be a real shame, because White House Down is something of a return to form for Emmerich - a slam-bang, riotous Die Hard parody that sees the German director having the most fun since Independence Day back in 1994.
Of course the scenario has already been played out once before this year in Antoine Fuqua's Olympus Has Fallen, starring Gerard Butler as a disgraced Secret Service agent out to rescue President Aaron Eckhart when the White House is taken over by North Korean terrorists (the new go-to foreign threat, following in the footsteps of the Russians and Chinese). Audiences already exasperated by this rather mediocre actioner will no doubt feel that they wish to sidestep another version of the story, especially one from the man who made the rather awful films 10,000 BC and Anonymous. Unlike its predecessor however, this version plays out with its tongue fixed squarely in cheek and upping the action stakes in almost every department. Where Olympus… followed its explosive (and, within context, almost believable) assault on the White House with little else but fistfights within dark corridors, White House Down goes all-out with each set-piece, from the destruction of Air Force One in mid-flight to a high speed chase through the White House gardens in the President's limo. Olympus… also suffers from "First Movie Fatigue", feeling hurried in both dialogue and exposition in order to be released before Channing and Jamie can get there.
Before we get too carried away, it must be pointed out the this film is hardly a game-changer in terms of action movies. However what we do have is a very entertaining throwback to all the late 80s and 90s action films spawned by John McTiernan's template in Die Hard. Key to the film's success is the pairing between Channing Tatum's cop and Jamie Foxx's President. It has been a long time since the chemistry in a buddy action film has worked this successfully. Unlike most recent films where the two would bicker and disagree before learning to accept each other, Cale and Sawyer have a strong camaraderie from the off. The film's home-grown villains have a little more character than the vacuous foreigners in Fuqua's version and with Maggie Gyllenhaal, Richard Jenkins and James Woods in the credits list, Emmerich has placed a strong and reliable group of actors to carry the film through to its conclusion.
Once the end credits have rolled and your mind goes back over the film you have watched, the film's weaknesses become apparent quickly. Yes, this is Die Hard in the White House, but did writer James Vanderbilt have to lift entire sequences and ideas from McTiernan's film that much? Tatum in a dirty vest, scrambling around in elevator shafts, a villainous henchman with a personal grudge against the hero, a secret agenda to the villain's plan - Emmerich even throws in some Beethoven for good measure. The director's Liberal views are anything but subtle, with all the enemies of a right-leaning tendency. The plot also takes one too many twists with the final reveal feeling like a knot-tying afterthought by the film makers, ending the film on a rather flat note. And some ropey CGI effects strapped to key scenes (in particular the Seal Team helicopters flying through the streets - another steal from Die Hard) sour the aftertaste a little. Yet in spite of all this, White House Down remains one of the most entertaining action movies in the past few years. It may not be a classic, but it certainly doesn't disappoint and will leave you with a big smile on your face.
With two strong leads, witty dialogue and pulsating action White House Down is a truly enjoyable night out at the cinema. Plot issues and blatant plagiarism are evident from the start, not to mention the film's blatant Liberal political views. However it is refreshing to see Roland Emmerich having the most fun in a movie for such a long time… And he won't be the only one having a great time in this explosive and entertaining piece of hokum.
"They will hunt you to the edge of the Earth for this..."
Spider (Wagner Moura)
In the year 2154, the human race is divided into two factions - rich and poor. The richest 5% live on Elysium, a shimmering space station orbiting the Earth, and enjoy a privileged life free from illness and poverty in a man-made paradise. The rest of the population live on a barren, polluted and decaying planet Earth, left to forage and eek out whatever existence is possible. When a former convict is left with only days to live after an industrial accident, he joins forces with a rebel guerilla unit in order to break into Elysium and heal himself. But the station's unscrupulous Secretary of Defense and her venal mercenary sleeper agent on the ground have devious plans of their own…
Director Neill Blomkamp burst onto the international scene with 2009's District 9, a visceral sci-fi actioner that posited the question - can humans and aliens really get along on Earth? Visually inventive and ripe with social metaphor, District 9 was one of the year's sleeper hits and catapulted Blomkamp into the Hollywood Machine. For his sophomore film, Blomkamp focusses on another issue that is rather relevant at present - economic class. The divide between the rich and poor is certainly not an original sci-fi premise - works like Fritz Lang's Metropolis through to Ridley Scott's Alien have all dealt with similar issues (a personal shout out must go to Stallone's 1994 epic Demolition Man - I do apologize!). However Blomkamp draws on this divide in a very grand visual scale. The man-made "paradise" Elysium is a magnificent creation - an imposing silver city in orbit (visually doffing its cap to 2001) where the rich can be cured of all illness and enjoy the highest lifestyle imaginable. The rest of the
human race can only look to the skies at this upper class Nirvana in envy, with
those that dare try to breach the station destroyed without remorse by security services on board the station.
The visuals are unquestionably the film's strongest card and Blomkamp knows how to make a movie look sensational. Before District 9, Blomkamp was in pre-production for a movie based on the video game Halo, before the studios put it into turnaround. With Elysium, he is given a much bigger budget than his previous feature and he offers up an idea of what his Halo film may have looked like. The sharp contrasts between the privileged and the rest of Earth are reflected in both the gleaming silver space station vistas and the dirt-brown rot and decay of our planet, irreparably damaged by the very inhabitants now clinging to its surface for life. It is here that we find Max (Matt Damon), a former car thief turned regular schmuck who scrapes a living as a factory worker for a big weapons supplier. It is when an accident leaves him with only days to live that the movie's action beats kick the movie into a higher gear. Our protagonist, coerced into a painful surgical procedure to graft a mechanical exo-skeleton to his body, decides a run on Elysium is his only chance for survival and reluctantly sides with his former criminal cohorts to achieve this. Throw in a potential love interest (Alice Braga) with her own desires to reach Elysium, a ruthless Defense Secretary Delacourt Rhodes (Jodie Foster) and a savage mercenary working for Rhodes on Earth (Sharlto Copley) and you have all the pieces for a classic showdown in space.
It is rather unfortunate then that it is with the narrative that we find Blomkamp stumble. Pretty visuals and an established leading man cannot make up for a lack of depth within the characters and plotting. Damon is always a likeable presence on screen, but Max is not the most sympathetic character he has played. His motives are pretty self-serving throughout the whole movie and when it comes to our protagonist's moment to step up and be a hero, his previous interest in self-preservation makes this fall a little flat. Foster is bothered by a fluctuating accent and too little screen time as the prime antagonist Rhodes (why have Jodie Foster in your movie if you aren't going to utilize her to the max?). But the most aggrieved should be Copley, who was one of the main reasons for District 9's success. Sadly this talented actor is given a rather standard, shallow role as the truly psychotic mercenary Kruger (a character similar to District 9's MNU commander Center, played by David James). This lack of depth is reflected in the narrative focus too. After a carefully balanced introduction to this future world, where the groundwork for an interesting study on the possible workings and morals of this huge class divide is laid, Blomkamp hits his audience with a barrage of non-stop action at every turn. Any real comment on the issues that are relevant to today's recovering economic world are crushed under the weight of men in bio-mechanical armour punching seven bells of excrement out of other.
This is a shame, because Elysium is not a bad film at all. As a piece of action entertainment, it has plenty to recommend it and there is no denying the visual mastery on display. Damon has added another salt-of-the-earth everyman hero to his CV and Blomkamp has cemented his name as an exciting sci-fi action director in the business. Let's just hope that on his next movie he can take courage in his convictions and tackle the socio-political issues he raises with more than laser-guided heavy artillery.
Gleaming visuals and thumping action set-pieces make Elysium a good solid piece of action cinema. Conventional characters and a rather simplistic narrative stop the film from achieving must-see status, but director Blomkamp's second outing in the director's chair is entertaining enough to get his audience looking forward to his next project.
"One down... Three down... You see where I'm going with this?"
Richard B. Riddick (Vin Diesel)
Betrayed, marooned and left for dead on a desolate planet, the criminal Richard B. Riddick battles against the bloodthirsty wildlife until he reaches a bounty hunter outpost. Activating the distress beacon, he lures two groups of mercenaries intent on collecting the huge bounty on his head. When the planet's dangers become too great however, an uneasy alliance between hunter and hunted is formed - and survival becomes paramount.
After nearly ten years away from the big screen, Vin Diesel's breakthrough anti hero Riddick returns, somewhat battered and bruised by the critical response to his last venture, 2003's The Chronicles of Riddick. While subsequent re-appraisal has produced a cult following, the film remains a bit of a disappointment in comparison to the stark and surprisingly entertaining Pitch Black, the moderate budget sci-fi horror that introduced the world to Diesel's laconic Furyan. It has taken a long time for Diesel and his director David Twohy a lot of effort to wrest control of the character from Universal Pictures, but here he is - back to the wild in a return to the sort of environment we first met him in Pitch Black. At one point Riddick even muses that the betrayal by his minions from Chronicles… was due to the fact that he became too domesticated. This film makes sure that Riddick is back to his animalistic roots from the very start, playing possum in order to catch food.
Riddick always felt like a more natural fit for Diesel than his other predominant character, Dominic Toretto from the Fast and Furious - and Diesel slips back into the role with relative ease. In fact, it is these early scenes of Riddick on his own in this new hostile environment that are the strongest of the film. DIY surgery and poison suppression are just some of the delights the audience are treated to within the first half an hour. It isn't perfect, primarily due to the
adoption of a wild dingo-like creature as a pet which shifts the tone uneasily
(albeit briefly) into some kind of intergalactic version of One Man and his Dog.
Writer-director Twohy is steady hands at this type of film and he seems more at ease when dealing with Riddick alone than when the arrival of the mercenaries takes place. When they land in response to the distress call that Riddick has set off in the abandoned outpost, we are squarely back in Pitch Black territory. Considering that Pitch Black offered up a certain level of characterization for it's secondary group of characters, it is rather disappointing that this muscle-bound collection of gun-toting thugs are rather flat and uninteresting. We have Matt Nable's commander with a grudge, Jordi Molla's psycho rival boss, Dave Bautista's all-brawn-no-brain attack dog and Bokeem Woodbine as the thoughtful one. And then there is Katie Sackhoff's token female of the group.
Sadly, it is here where the film goes off the boil. The treatment of women characters in this type of movie has always been questionable over the years, but considering how far we have come it is very dispiriting when misogyny is still considered as normal on screen. Pitch Black had strong roles for women without resorting to such degrading attitudes, but here it is up front and in your face from the moment the mercs arrive on the planet. Molla's predatory by-play with Sackhoff's Dahl stinks of rot and her establishment as a lesbian (of course, that explains why she is a tough bounty hunter!) is a weak attempt to justify her tough girl image. It is at its worst when Riddick himself acts all "rapey" towards Dahl, offering to go "balls-deep" into her (after she asks nicely, of course) during a confrontation with the mercs. Here is the anti-hero purporting that all she needs is a real man to show her the way. It beggars belief that this kind of stuff is still getting through the script re-writes and
This is a shame, because for all its low-rent stylistics and un-original plot twists, Riddick can be pretty entertaining when it hits its stride. The action is solid, even quite gripping at times. The story fits in well enough with the rest of the canon and the performances are well up to par for this type of film. It is just so disappointing that Twohy couldn't put enough attention to this outmoded view of sexual politics - let us hope that this is something he can remedy in the next film, because Riddick has enough going for it to warrant another episode with the deadly Furyan.
At times entertaining, at others offensive - Riddick is a bit of a mixed bag. Diesel's gruff performance and a smattering of good action set pieces cannot mask the sour streak of misogyny that runs through the centre of the film, leaving the audience with a rather bitter taste in the mouth.