28 June 2013

The Road to a Blockbuster: White Heat Down

As another Summer Friday lurches over the horizon, it's time once again to examine the latest crop of wannabe blockbusters. Every Friday in the Season of the Sun we're examining the critical, cultural, and commercial potential of every big flick that's set to premiere this year. We're not only looking for short-term success, though, we're looking at the extended T-shirt potential - which films are we going to be still quoting a year from now, and which ones will we stick ironically on a T-shirt twenty years from now? This weekend we have two sort of wacky cop / action movies - one with two dudes, the other with two dames: White House Down (2013) and The Heat (2013).

White House Down is the latest in a long line of Hollywood Dueling Movies, of which there is a surprisingly expansive list over at TV Tropes. While some of these are kind of fishy (Inception [2010] vs. Shutter Island [2010]?), all the big ones are spot on. Wyatt Earp (1994) vs. Tombstone (1993). Volcano (1997) vs. Dante's Peak (1997). Antz (1998) vs. A Bug's Life (1998). Deep Impact (1998) vs. Armageddon (1998).  Happy Feet (2006) vs. Surf's Up (2007). A lot of these more famous duels seemed to come about in the late 90s, but there's also a definitive glut in recent years. We've got things like Paul Blart: Mall Cop (2009) vs. Observe and Report (2009). No Strings Attached (2011) vs. Friends With Benefits (2011) and Mirror, Mirror (2012) vs. Snow White and the Huntsman (2012). This year alone we've got two magician movies (The Incredible Burt Wonderstone [2013] vs. Now You See Me [2013] - speaking of which, what is it with Magician Movies coming in pairs? See also: The Illusionist [2006] vs. The Prestige [2006]), two A-List "Last Man on Earth Movies" (After Earth [2013] vs. Oblivion [2013]), and finally, the battle to see who can destroy the white house first, Olympus Has Fallen (2013) vs. White House Down.

Now, all of these movies have a very obvious superior version. Think Tombstone, A Bug's Life, and Armageddon. I wholeheartedly believe that White House Down will be the superior White House Disaster Movie of 2013. It just seems to be a bigger, crazier, funner film than the brooding Olympus Has Fallen, and stars Channing Tatum and Jamie Foxx have both proven to do nice doses of action and comedy better than Olympus analogues Gerard Butler and Aaron Eckhart.

This past spring we seemed to get just an assault of mediocre action films that weren't all that terrible, just sort of not that great. Movies like Jack the Giant Slayer (2013), Oz the Great and Powerful (2013), and of course, Olympus Has Fallen were all kind of OK in the sense that their basic stories made sense and they were enjoyable for a few hours. They're essentially all perfect lazy Sunday Afternoon F/X movies. None of them are going to rise to the tops of 2013's best of lists, even in their own shitty genres.
The age old action formula of
Black Cop President / White Cop

How is White House Down going to avoid that? Simply put - Roland Emmerich, for all his sheer idiocy, knows how to destroy shit. He's still a poor man's Michael Bay, but he does know his way around an explosion. Besides, he was doing this White House destruction schtick almost twenty years ago. Yes, that was almost twenty years ago. We shouldn't have total faith in a director though, so what else is there that is going to make this thing stand out?

In a single word - it's C-Tates. While he got his career start as a stripper, dancer, and the lead in a seemingly endless, endless road of crap, in the past two years he became one of Steven Soderbergh's go to actors at the supposed end of his film career and starred in the funniest film of the damn decade. Channing ends up best when he's channeling this sort of parody - the doofie but loveable bro to end all bros, who can mix action chops with purposely vacant expressions and a mind too dumb to even earn a brow furrow. There's not even an attempt to understand his situation - as Danny Lugo would say, he's a Doer, not a Don'ter. He's been able to pull this off with a glowing sense of self-awareness that has ended up causing him to be extremely likeable. He's not like the dudes in the Expendables movies who take their careers pretty seriously. C-Tates is all about a fun stupid time and he's the best at delivering that right now.

I believe in Channing Tatum.

I also believe in Jamie Foxx. A quick glance at his career will show you one of the most variable actors in Hollywood. Ray (2004) to Stealth (2005). Django Unchained (2012) to The Amazing Spider-Man 2 (2014). The man can do it all, and it's about time he's became President. Even though things in general don't go well for Black Presidents in movies. His voice has that soft Django coo to it, though, and even though Jamie certainly has the action chops, he seems more like a fish out of water being coached by C-Tates. Fine by me as long as this becomes a true buddy cop film by the end with both Foxx and Tates kicking ass. I am also intrigued by who the villain of this picture might be - from the looks of the trailer, it's just straight-up Tim Olyphant from Live Free or Die Hard (2007), but there could be something else neat going on there. Or not, who cares.

On the other side of the aisle we have another buddy movie, this one starring Melissa McCarthy and Sandra Bullock. And it's pretty damn hard to find a more likable duo than that. They've both been nominated for Oscars in recent years (the latter winning for The Blind Side [2009]), and they also generally star in films that make buttloads of money. And if you ever doubt the potency of McCarthy's schtick or think that her act has worn itself thin, just take a gander at the first surprise hit of 2013, Identity Thief which somehow cranked out $134 million in February. Both actresses are crazy popular across just about every demographic, although they possibly skew a bit towards women.

So there's the rub - will women come out to see the female buddy action comedy? There are inevitable comparisons to Bridesmaids (2011), with which The Heat shares a director, the great Paul Feig, McCarthy, and a nice solid R-Rating. Bridesmaids also used shifted genders to play with genre, although it wasn't ever quite the female Hangover many expected it to be (for the better). It also made a ridiculous amount of money, meaning that no one really cares whether it's chicks or dudes up on screen, if it's funny and poignant and worth watching, it'll make some money. The Heat switches Kristen Wiig for Sandra Bullock, which is assuredly a lateral move at worst and an upgrade in popular appeal at best.
The other age old formula of Fat Cop / Old Cop

The issue here really is if all these translations can come to pass. Is a female buddy cop movie analogous to a female party movie? Did we max out on McCarthy playing the same character in every movie with the very recent Identity Thief? Is Sandra a better Kristen? If all the answers to these questions are yes, then watch out as The Heat becomes the breakaway comedy hit of the summer. Its only other competition is really Grown Ups 2 (2013), The To-Do List (2013), and We're the Millers (2013), which when paired with The Internship (2013) and This is the End (2013) form a list of really different comedies this summer. While I can't picture any of them getting better or funnier than This is the End, no other comedy has the potential for both critical and commercial success as The Heat. It's obvious and unfortunate that the tepid Grown Ups 2 will almost assuredly run away with the most money this summer, but that's about guaranteed to some how be even more terrible than its predecessor. But that's for another week.

The marketing for The Heat hasn't been that strong (assuredly it is not as ubiquitous as White House Down), but it has clearly laid out the actors involved, the character tropes they embiggen, and the general "Oh shit - odd couple!" kind of plot that is set to unfold. There shouldn't be a ton that hold this back, but the vibe around White House Down is a hell of a lot stronger right now. It's tough to even remember that The Heat is coming out this weekend. It is important, however, to never doubt that female demographic, who has been spoon fed male-centric action films for the entire year. And their entire lives, really. Hell, I'm down for switching it up.

As for twenty years down the line, I've got to think that White House Down finds a special place in Emmerich's oeuvre while The Heat will probably be overshadowed by Bridesmaids as McCarthy's best movie, and Sandra still has a plentiful career to pick and choose from any number of classics, although she's laid low since The Blind Side. I'm sorry, make that All About Steve (2009). If anything, this ought to get us amped up for her turn in Gravity (2013), which actually looks fucking terrifying, but that may also be because I first saw the trailer in 3D IMAX.

So there you have it. The fellas vs. the ladies this weekend in a buddy action kind of comedy weekend. They'll probably all lose to Monsters University (2013) anyway.

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