Review: White House Down

Cale (Channing Tatum) helps President James Walker (Jamie Foxx) out of a tight spot
Cale (Channing Tatum) helps President James Walker (Jamie Foxx) out of a tight spot

You’ve got to wonder about Roland Emmerich sometimes. Not content with blowing up the White House with an alien laser beam in Independence Day, he’s now returned to America’s most famous residence to fill it with terrorists and play a slapstick game of Die Hardgleefully blasting away masonry and smashing chandeliers. Anyone might think that there wasn’t something decidedly unpatriotic going on in the man’s subconscious. Except that judging from his movies, Emmerich can’t possibly have enough thought processes to qualify for a subconscious. 

Calling out White House Down for being idiotic is nearly pointless. It’s a little like shooting fish in a barrel. A barrel that’s shaped to the fish. But sometimes you’ve just got to shoot the fish. You ought to know right out of the gate what you’re going to get here. This is popcorn action cinema cut from the same cloth as the 80’s and 90’s favourites which made Emmerich’s name, not to mention the names of many others. Borrowing from the aforementioned Die Hard to the likes of The Rock and dozens more, White House Down is a cut’n’paste box-ticking ride of lunacy and mayhem. Guns, explosions, cars, helicopters. There are even sparklers. So I can’t play intellectual or snob here (can I?). It isn’t fair, right? But what then to make of this, the most ambitious of home invasion movies?

It starts off… surprisingly muted. Usually this sort of thing gives us a bang right out of the gate to grab our attention, but White House Down decides to start small and scale up. Starting small is all relative, of course, as we meet Jamie Foxx as President James Swayer (is he actually named after a character from Lost?) flying back to the White House aboard a poorly rendered CGI chopper (the first of many) and asking his Secret Service detail Finnerty (Maggie Gyllenhaal) if he can do “that thing” and fly low over a few choice landmarks on the way. It’s the kind of unapologetically childish nonsense that you’ll get used to over the next couple of hours. The West Wing this ain’t.

Even less believable is Channing Tatum as Secret Service-wannabe John Cale. An apparently piss-poor father and second-rate body man to Speaker of the House Raphelson (Richard Jenkins), he is genuinely introduced while threatening a squirrel. His day’s journey will inevitably take him to the White House, along with his daughter Emily (Joey King), where we’re supposed to root for him in an interview for a job he doesn’t need or apparently deserve before he falls neatly into this movie’s John McClane role.

Because, you see, retiring Head of the Secret Service Martin Walker (James Woods) has got some surprise entertainment up his sleeve; namely a coup d’etat  disguised as terrorism for motives which are supposed to remain elusive, but which are paper-thin from the get-go. Before you can locate a copy of the constitution there are bombs going off, screaming crowds, hostages and bad dudes with big guns everywhere. It’s clearly time for Cale to take his shirt off.

Emmerich is an old hand at this now, and as such he knows what he’s doing. This opening stretch is largely unremarkable, but it is pacey and engaging, despite Tatum. This is the first time I’ve seen a film starring the titanic meathead; an apparently utterly-vacant beefcake whose main talent seems to be having a neck that’s wider than his face. Cale might’ve had some Bruce Willis-style panache to him, but Tatum is at a loss to find it. I get that he brings the box office on being a hunk, but really even by Hollywood’s standards he’s astonishingly awful. Tatum couldn’t act his way off of a porno shoot, and he has less charisma than you’re average mean-faced porno battledick. The film only finds legs when Cale partners up with renegade President Sawyer.

Foxx is a Hollywood leading man, and he also knows just how goofy this movie is, playing up to it to a tee. When the two of them are united. and White House Down switches to buddy-movie mode, it suddenly all clicks into place. From sneaky rides on elevators to doing doughnuts on the front lawn in a limousine, the film does finds an agreeably daft stride. Much of the fun here comes from Foxx, who makes merry hay from putting President Sawyer out of his comfort zone. Along the way he gets to use a rocket launcher and there’s even time for some product placement for Jordan footwear and – improbably – Nicorette Gum.

My tone here might be a little cynical, but the second act of White House Down is an absolute riot, and it’s hard not to get caught up in the dumb action which ensues. For a while at least, Emmerich’s film has a shot at playing in the genre’s big leagues.

Unfortunately it all falls apart. Foxx’s President Sawyer gets left behind (literally), reminding the viewer of just how weak Tatum’s Cale is. Tatum can’t hold the film together by himself, and by this point even James Woods’ scenery-chewing bad guy Walker is getting exhausted. Meanwhile Gyllenhaal’s Finnerty is sidelined to hanging on the phone at the Pentagon as presidential command does the rounds quicker than a game of pass the parcel. Cale and the token mercenaries move between (and shoot up) every room in the White House as a succession of tepid countdowns attempt to build suspense on top of suspense until pretty soon you’re siding with Raphelson’s suggestion that they just carpet bomb the whole mess. Like an explosive Benny Hill skit, it just goes on a bit too long.

And then there’s the end. I know suspension of disbelief is the whole point here. I know it’s just a big dumb action movie, but jeez. There’s a scene on the lawn out front of the White House which is supposed to play seriously, but it’s the most laughable thing I think I’ve ever seen. Suddenly White House Down becomes the SNL spoof of itself, as Agatha Christie-style revelations are flung around as wildly as ‘nuclear footballs’. It’s a jaw-dropping descent into drivel from which the movie never even tries to recover.

But that’s what this is. Unashamedly sillier than most (if not all) of its progenitors, Emmerich’s film crash lands in a fireball of its own crapness. Too bad. For a while there it was genuinely on a roll. Jamie Foxx can stand tall at the end of this; he’s obviously had a blast. Everyone else? Not so much. I guess I sound like a spoil sport. Only a couple of days ago I was defending Insidious Chapter 2 for being a goofy guilty pleasure. The difference is that at least that was well crafted dross. This movie is painfully slapdash in places, from careless editing and shonky computer generated effects to Tatum’s woeful presence from start to finish. All from a script presumably written by someone throwing magnetic Scrabble tiles at their fridge. If only they’d sustained that second act magic. Too late.

White House Down was on a roll for a while there, and if you go into the film knowing how bad it is, knowing how silly it is, you may still have a fun time. But will you be able to look at yourself in the mirror afterward and say that it was actually good?

Score:  1.5

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