Between Olympus Has Fallen and this week’s White House Down, it’s like 1997 all over again: two films with vaguely the same topic coming out only months apart from one another. But while the insufferably bush league Olympus used Die Hard as a standard demarcation point, disaster movie maven Roland Emmerich’s latest opus owes a lot more to The Rock and Shane Black films of the 80s, immediately making it the stronger and vastly more enjoyable of the two options. Emmerich still doesn’t know what subtlety is, but all things considered, it’s handily his most accomplished effort since Independence Day (you know, that other movie where he destroys the White House).
John Cale (Channing Tatum) has been spending his past few years happily employed as the personal protection detail for the U.S. Speaker of the House (Richard Jenkins) and unhappily trying to connect with the daughter (Joey King) he kinda, sorta abandoned as a young father to go back to Afghanistan. He dreams of becoming a Secret Service agent working to protect President James Sawyer (Jamie Foxx), but after bombing out an interview with a superior who happens to be an old flame (Maggie Gyllenhaal), his dreams look to go unfulfilled. Following the disastrous meeting, John takes his daughter for a tour of the most famous residence in the world, only to have it all taken over in a terrorist attack-slash-ransom extortion by a paramilitary mercenary (Jason Clarke) wanting to make a profit and a soon to be retired Secret Service bureau chief (James Woods) out for personal revenge. With his daughter lost in the house, Cale not only sets off on a mission to find her, but also rescues the president himself, leading the duo to try to escape, keep Sawyer in power, and find the missing girl.
There’s a whole lot going on in White House Down that leads to a lengthy running time, but it’s pretty fleet-footed when it comes to not dwelling on how silly it all is and the action just keeps moving along. Emmerich could make this kind of movie in his sleep by now, but he seems a bit more energized by the material this time out than he has in quite some time. There’s no way that a single frame of this film could really go down as it’s depicted, but as far as action movie fantasy goes, it delivers the goods. It’s a great Sunday afternoon movie to watch when there isn’t a football game on. It’s definitely hitting a sweet spot of some kind for the right viewer.
The action sequences are massive and refreshingly old school in their execution. Sometimes the CGI is a bit unconvincing, but shootouts and one particularly adept car chase across the lawns in and around the compound are thrilling and fun to behold. The script, courtesy of James Vanderbilt (Zodiac, The Rundown) contains appropriately knowing nods to future plot points and purposefully snicker-worthy bits of exposition that should make fans of the equally (but still far more) ridiculous Fast and Furious 6 sequel with B-movie glee.
A lot of White House Down gets by on sheer production value (it looks great even thought it was shot entirely in Montreal and not in D.C.) and the effortless charisma of its cast. Tatum reasserts himself as a likable everyman and adds “credible action hero” to his resume, taking tumbles and sliding across tables guns blazing like a pro. The number of bullets he has to dodge is almost vastly more comical than his one liners, but he firmly gets the silliness of the situation around him. As for Foxx, who loves to talk about Abe Lincoln way too much, he gets to put to good use the blend of comedic chops and gravitas that he’s been honing for decades now. He makes for a perfectly good buddy cop partner for Tatum and the duo play off each other splendidly. Gyllenhaal looks like she’s having a blast manning the control centre and barking orders. It’s the perfect example of an actor taking a gig and going whole hog with it because they might never well have the same opportunity every again. The still astoundingly underrated Clarke and the due-for-a-comeback Woods make for great sneer worthy villains, and Jenkins is always a treat as the opposition leader who constantly flip-flops his allegiances based on whatever he’s feeling at the moment. The real scene stealer here, though, might be young King, whose politically minded and sullen youth blogger arguably does more good than any character in the film, and she’s also inarguably the biggest badass out of all of them.
It wears its goofy heart on its sleeve, often acting as the liberal counterpoint to Olympus Has Fallen’s staunchly right wing posturing. It’s more about demilitarization at its core than it is about rah-rah patriotism, and its anti-corporate bent is kind of surprising to see in a film of this size and scope.
White House Down is a summer blockbuster from a different era of blockbusters. It looks more to the B-squad of action movie royalty to take its cues from rather than going for the ones at the top that people have seen done to death over and over again. It has just enough going for it to feel fresh and more than enough going for it to feel like a high ranking summertime treat. Sometimes that’s just all you need.