The second candidate in the ‘Destroy Washington D.C.’ bid for box office, Roland Emmerich’s White House Down proves to be even more insane than its recent competition, Olympus Has Fallen. That film, that saw Gerard Butler battling North Korean terrorists in order to save U.S President Aaron Eckhart, looks positively sensible and low-key when compared to Emmerich’s overblown action miasma that finds the time for Jamie Foxx’s Commander-in-Chief to fire a rocket from the back of a limo during a car chase across the White House lawn. Channing Tatum and Foxx carry the movie with cheerful banter and star appeal, but White House Down ultimately ends up being the one thing you wouldn’t expect; boring.
Featuring an almost slavish adherence to giant explosions, decimation of symbolic American landmarks, pop-culture quipping, and rampant, xenophobic cliché, White House Down observes a tried and true formula that we could probably just start calling ‘The Roland’; appropriately reminiscent of a pompously named signature sandwich filled with crap that will inevitably make you sick. Extremely similar to Olympus from a plot perspective, WHD follows Channing Tatum’s John Cale, an Iraq war veteran and security guard who’s come to 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue to interview for a Secret Service job on the same day that a group of domestic terrorists have decided to storm the Oval Office.
Along with Cale is his young daughter Emily (Joey King), whose trust and love he has to earn—if you’re a dad in the movies you always begin in the negative—and who has been conceived by Vanderbilt’s script to behave like a Swiss army knife disguised as a girl. She’s a political nut, loves blogging, and has random flag-waving skills (real, not metaphorical) that turn out to be not so random in a late moment that seems to be purposefully referencing a similarly implausible scene in Spielberg’s The Lost World. Emily is captured by the goons, who are just as silly in their diverse ‘bad American’ stereotypes as the generic Asian villains of many an 80’s flick; there are rednecks, racists, hackers and jilted government workers among the ranks, and their plan is spectacularly muddled.
Cale, who must risk everything to get Emily back, also comes to the aid of President Sawyer (Jamie Foxx), a man who seems less like the leader of the free world and more like, well, Jamie Foxx. Together they fight their way through the terrorists while on the administrative side of things, Secret Service coordinator Maggie Gyllehaal teams up with Speaker of the House Raphelson (Richard Jenkins) and Vice President (Michael Murphy) to figure out what happens succession-wise if Sawyer is killed or kidnapped. Along for the ride are the dubious head of the Secret Service, Agent Carter (James Woods cashing that paycheck), Donnie the White House guide (Nicolas Wright), who will face-down hardened killers to save a priceless vase if it comes to it, and the high-strung leader of the invasion, Stenz (Jason Clarke), who occasionally hits a few sublime, high camp notes but mostly just sputters with impotent villainy.
White House Down is over-qualified in its casting, and over-produced on all other technical counts. The two areas that truly feel anemic are the script and, surprisingly, the direction. It’s not a shock that Vanderbilt’s script is basically an ‘I Spy’ of familiar action beats pressed together with some attempt at balanced political spurn; the left are idealists whose plans hold as little real world sense as George Lucas’ juvenile intergalactic trade disputes while the right are mostly crazed extremists who’s only recourse is a coup d’état on their own country. That the movie doesn’t generate any good will or juicy entertainment from the premise, especially in the hands of a guy who usually blows stuff up real good, is just plain disappointing. Although certainly not an auteur of the Hitchcock variety, I always found Emmerich a reasonable helmer of great-looking summer fluff, with only a few instances like Godzilla or One Million B.C. falling flat on the aesthetic level. Here, though, he’s working like a traffic cop for special effects and pyrotechnics, and I don’t know that I’ve seen one of his pictures look as muddled and undistinguished as White House Down.
The action scenes are largely disposable, and although Tatum does his best with what he’s got, his character is a bland cipher that can’t be killed or wounded. Action heroes only work when we can fear for their safety at the same time we root for their success, and by the third scene of Channing dodging bullets and slaying every bad-guy in the room, the audience has ceased any form of worry for him. Foxx seems rudderless, given over to fast-talking, smart-ass antics that suggest Emmerich didn’t know what to do with him, and had few ideas about how this President would plausibly behave, either as a national figurehead during peace-time or as a man under fire in a tense, escalating ‘do or die’ situation.
Agent Carter has his motivation cribbed from Ed Harris’ general in The Rock, but the character himself is rather one-note and Woods can play that sort of malcontent in his sleep, which he might be doing here. Gyllenhaal, Jenkins, and the likes of Lance Reddick (still getting typecast by The Wire) are just there to add some sense of legitimacy to rather inconsequential scenes of governmental deliberation that really only slow the movie down. If there’s one thing White House didn’t need, it’s more slow. Emmerich and company spend so much time in the first half painstakingly setting up every joke, every decision, and every dramatic beat that happens in the second, that the initial thirty minutes of the movie can be considered optional attendance.
There will be those who complain that White House Down is just dumb fun, and should be taken as such. I wholeheartedly agree, but somehow only the first part of that equation translates here. It isn’t anywhere near the worst movie to land this summer, nor is it particularly terrible for what it is. If you are an Emmerich, Tatum or Foxx fan, there are numerous scenes to enjoy, but the movie itself is a frustrated mess that wastes the goodwill of action buffs desperate for a thrilling dose of escapism. The real issue is that it’s an absolutely pedestrian exercise, evoking no strong feelings either way, and sadly can’t even manage the tension of the extremely similar film of two months ago. In an age when our political candidates seem like bad Xerox copies of whatever came before, White House Down’s defining feature may be its ability to recreate that feeling of voter fatigue that results in the resigned line “I’m not a fan of any of these choices.” Someone needs to start a new campaign for good, breezy fun at the multiplex; that’s a party line I can get behind.
White House Down is out now in US cinemas and opens in the UK on September 6th.
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