"If you feed a man," declares President James Sawyer (Jamie Foxx) early in White House Down, "you take away his propensity for violence."
Is this director Roland Emmerich's way of telling us he's hungry?
White House Down--like pretty much every other Emmerich movie apart from the odd foray into literary conspiracy theory--is a crisply made but profoundly ridiculous exercise in Blowing Things Up. Perhaps the greatest surprise it offers is that in this summer of wall-to-wall apocalypse (Oblivion, After Earth, This Is the End, Pacific Rim, Elysium, The World's End), the maestro of global mayhem who brought us Independence Day, Godzilla, The Day After Tomorrow, and 2012 has chosen to tone things down with the relatively localized pandemonium of a plot to capture the president. (Well, sure, the specter of thermonuclear war eventually arises, but still...)
Channing Tatum stars as John Cale, a U.S. Capitol Police officer who wants very much to join the president's Secret Service detail. But despite his raw talent, he's turned down flat for the position because he has a lack of respect for authority and he never finishes anything. These assessments sting all the more because they are administered by an agent on the presidential detail (Maggie Gyllenhaal) who is an old friend (and perhaps ex-flame) of his from college.
Oh well, at least Cale brought along his quasi-estranged, 11-year-old daughter, Emily (Joey King), for a White House tour. Apart from his humiliatingly unsuccessful job interview, what could possibly go wrong?
So glad you asked. A conspiracy hatched by a comical array of right-wing boogeymen--the CIA-trained assassin, the white supremacist, the anti-Iran zealot, the "military-industrial complex"--has succeeded in blowing up the Capitol dome and seizing the White House. All that stands between the world and their perfidious schemes is, as one of them grumbles, "some schmuck from one of the tours."
What follows is essentially a louder, sillier version of Die Hard, with John Cale standing in for John McClane (who needs those extra consonants?), his precocious daughter standing in for the latter's plucky wife, the White House standing in for Nakatomi Plaza, and--alas--no one even much trying to stand in for Alan Rickman's deliciously wicked Hans Gruber. Like McClane before him, Cale sneaks down hallways and up elevator shafts, picking off bad guys one by one, as the authorities (police, Secret Service, the Army, the Air Force) wait helplessly outside, occasionally checking in by sat phone. Apart from overall quality, the chief differences between this film and Bruce Willis's franchise-starter are that a) Cale spends much of his time in the company of the (notably game) president; and b) the villains are far less stylishly accoutered.
On display once again is Emmerich's peculiar blend of pacifistic piety and wanton violence. The thugs who sneer that the president is "one of those ac-a-demics who never served a day in his life" may lose the battle for the White House, but there's little doubt that from the start they've already won the war for narrative tone. (Memo to Emmerich: Repeated invocations of the adage that "the pen is mightier than the sword" are somewhat undercut when that pen is used to stab somebody.)
There are moments of wit scattered throughout the proceedings--though fewer than there might have been--and Emmerich displays his customary proficiency with the action sequences. James Woods shows up as a retiring chief of presidential security who is clearly destined either to die nobly or to be revealed as a turncoat. (Don't worry: The suspense is not maintained for long.) Jason Clarke, who was so very good as "Dan" in Zero Dark Thirty, is rewarded with a role as a tediously snarling baddie. And Richard Jenkins--well, I look forward to forgetting he was in this movie, and I trust he does too.
White House Down ends, customarily, with a pileup of maudlin melodrama, in which Cale's demonstration of his value as a dad is deemed no less important than--indeed, is largely synonymous with--his ability to save the world. (Prepare yourself for the movie's early references to "flag-twirling" and a historic pocket watch to come back in the most excruciating manner possible.) Before we get to that point, though, there are many automatic weapons to fire, and presidential limos to crash, and Blackhawks to bring down, and tanks to blow up. It's only a little past the midpoint of the movie that one character announces, "That concludes the running and shooting portion of the our programming." Take it for better or for worse, but he is, of course, lying.