Taking advantage of the Fourth of July weekend (and the promise of an air-conditioned theater) to catch up with a few recent releases, I was surprised to find I had unwittingly strapped myself in for a buddy-comedy marathon. By which I mean that besides “The Heat,” the popular mean-cop/meaner-cop vehicle with Sandra Bullock and Melissa McCarthy, I also made time to see those widely derided B.O. bombs “White House Down” and “The Lone Ranger.”
Now at first glance, you might not be inclined to call Roland Emmerich’s D.C. demolition derby a buddy comedy, never mind that it toplines Channing Tatum as a Secret Service hopeful trying to protect Jamie Foxx’s President Faux-bama, or that it features several of the year’s funniest throwaway lines. (My favorite: “Your peace plan is working!”) Nor would you necessarily use “buddy comedy” to describe “The Lone Ranger,” Gore Verbinski’s lavish demonstration of how not to assemble a blockbuster franchise, even though it stars Johnny Depp and an outlandish avian headdress. (Armie Hammer’s in it, too.)
In both cases, it’s entirely possible that the filmmakers were not sufficiently aware of the comedic resources at their disposal to tap them properly, or at least consistently. By turns appalling and amusing, Emmerich’s movie maintains an air of superficial decorum roughly until Tatum and Foxx start tearing up the White House lawn with a rocket launcher, at which point it becomes clear that little of this amusing, appalling actioner should be taken seriously. “The Lone Ranger” is a trickier case: Equal parts oil, water and gasoline, it simultaneously plays its archetypal material straight, milks it for deadpan laughs, and subjects it to sober, politically correct revisionism.
Both pictures, in their compromised yet oddly moving fashion, represent throwbacks to earlier eras of Hollywood entertainment. “White House Down” is a proud descendant of the “Die Hard” pics and the mindless epics of mass destruction Emmerich has specialized in since “Independence Day,” while “The Lone Ranger” strains to reinvent a beloved Western property as another theme-park spectacular from the “Pirates of the Caribbean” brain trust. And both films regard their antecedents with a sort of half-hearted knowingness that verges on parody, a tonal instability that may have translated into the marketing, if their commercial performance is any indication.
Or it may be that the genres and formulas here simply no longer speak to audiences as they once did. One of the reasons “The Lone Ranger” left me feeling stirred as well as disappointed is that it reminded me, to an impressive degree, how rarely Hollywood attempts to mount large-scale Westerns anymore. We may not need to see Helena Bonham Carter sporting a porcelain leg, but we could surely use more Monument Valley vistas and speeding locomotives.
Although its homegrown-terrorism scenario feels almost similarly quaint (it’s essentially an ultra-compressed season of “24”), “White House Down” is ultimately the better, more assured movie. Stupid in a way that affords more delight than offense, it’s the sort of old-fashioned, cover-the-bases entertainment where a little girl’s flag-twirling routine, introduced at the outset, will assuredly play a significant role in the climax. As it happens, something similar transpires in “The Heat,” which includes an early scene of Sandra Bullock learning (sort of) to perform an emergency tracheotomy; the payoff, incidentally, was the bloodiest, most visceral sequence I saw all weekend. Amid the buddy-comedy barrage, it was nice to see at least one action movie unafraid to go for the jugular.