The White House gets commandeered by a gang of anti-American conspirators and mercenaries, whose members include ex-soldiers and an elite computer hacker. They’re led by a zealous saboteur–who also happens to be chief of the President’s security detail. It’s a premise that seems tailored for a throwback ’80s or ’90s action bonanza. Indeed, White House Down plays a lot like Die Hard-lite, heavy on the artillery and the macho swagger but lacking the edge and creepiness that made us take baddies like Alan Rickman seriously. This is, after all, a Roland Emmerich affair, and–having avoided most of his output since Independence Day–I guess I’d forgotten just how schmaltzy the man’s films can be. There is an overload of cheese here, a fondue of it here dripping over the edges of this jingoistic B-movie hokum, and it makes for a very queasy combination with the sarcastic, even subversive comedy that peeps through at times from the lead’s performers.
Channing Tatum picks up where he left off in 21 Jump Street, playing an oafish yet confident security officer aspiring to the ranks of the Presidential Secret Service. As Cale, he marshals the same combination of befuddled machismo that created comic sparks opposite Jonah Hill’s nerdy buffoonery in 21 Jump Street, and it’s almost as effective here opposite Jamie Foxx, playing the President with about as stately and dignified an air as he can muster. Had director Emmerich allowed the chain reaction of comic chemistry sparked by these leads to carry the film, there’s no telling how good White House Down could’ve been. What we have instead is a sporadically amusing, ridiculously corny “thrill ride” contrived for maximum, infantile patriotism.
It so happens that, on the same day as Cale shows up for a bungling interview with Finnerty (Maggie Gyllenhall), a top White House staffer, the aforementioned gang infiltrates the White House and promptly begins to raise hell. It also happens to be that Cale’s daughter, a budding political junkie and pint-sized, all-American hero, is part of a White House tour. When Cale learns his daughter is among the terrorists’ hostages, he goes into overdrive, partnering up with the Foxx’s equally beleaguered President Sawyer–who finds himself the target of traitors in his own ranks–to save the day.
While its set-up and initial action set pieces have a breathable and involving-enough style, the movie completely unravels the deeper Emmerich goes into the takeover conspiracy and the more over-the-top its theatrics get. Top quality actors like Woods, Gyllenhaal, Richard Jenkins and Jason Clarke do the best they can with a ludicrous screenplay by James Vanderbilt. They hit all the notes that Emmerich’s direction, which tries to squeeze as much melodrama out of the script’s parental, presidential and patriotic themes, demands. His direction is otherwise nondescript–this is shot and edited as a straight-ahead, generic action movie of outsize scale and the hysterics to match. Emmerich’s depiction of the American media types, the jingoistic citizenry and the nefarious bad guys is so riddled with cliches and hammered home with such brain-deadening obviousness that White House Down is eventually a joyless enterprise in calculated mall-crowd moviemaking of the dumbest order.
The silver lining is the occasional spark of comedy seen in the team-up of Tatum and Foxx. They have a few moments that have a sense of slapstick and genre subversion that go about halfway to making White House Down a watchable experience. The best among these might be a frenetic moment when Cale and Sawyer, under fire, hustle into the White House’s garage and climb inside the presidential limo. But, even in the heat of battle, the President ducks into the back seat of the limo while Cale takes the wheel before taking off on a rockets-and-bullets addled tear around the White House lawn. “Why the hell did you get in the back?” Cale shouts. “Force of habit,” Sawyer answers. That’s a genuinely funny moment in a movie that should’ve had tons of them instead of the wall to wall of silly, self-serious melodrama punctuated by forgettable action scenes.
Directed by: Roland Emmerich
Written by: James Vanderbilt
Cast: Channing Tatum, Jamie Foxx, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Jason Clarke, Richard Jenkins, Joey King, James Woods