I was riding high on Roland Emmerich’s latest action-fest, White House Down, immediately after leaving the theater. Now, twelve hours later, my enthusiasm has waned considerably. I suppose I knew going in that that would be my experience, because I went into it expecting a movie that was potentially bad, but with enough explosions and Channing Tatum jumping through windows to make up for it. Indeed, I was not disappointed by the Tatum-window-jump count in this movie. I’ve seen it compared favorably to ’90s action flicks–specifically Die Hard–and that comparison seems right on the nose. White House Down feels like it would be a great addition to the Die Hard franchise, if that series had not fallen to pieces as Bruce Willis aged. And yet… there’s a certain sense of formula at work: no matter how cool the firefights are, we kind of already know this story backwards and forwards (and not just because Olympus Has Fallen, the Dante’s Peak to White House Down‘s Volcano, was released a few months ago).
Here is the skeleton of the premise: John Cale (Tatum), a former bad boy turned good cop, has interviewed for a position on the President’s secret service team, but is unlikely to get the job because he is considered unable to finish things he starts. This is evidenced by his potential higher-up reading comments about his work that lay it all out bluntly, saying things like, “John Cale does not finish things he starts.” He is on the outs with his daughter at the moment for missing her middle school talent show, so there’s that, too. On top of all this, a group of right-wing terrorists have just detonated explosives in the capitol building and taken the White House by storm. It’s up to the apparently super-human Cale to single-handedly take down the entire team of terrorists, save his daughter and President Sawyer (Jamie Foxx, clearly playing a fictionalized Barack Obama), and do it all before the U.S. military drops a bomb on the building. No big deal. Nothing Cale can’t handle by somersaulting over furniture, sliding around corners, or employing a little jujitsu… all while firing handguns at the baddies and avoiding capture. Piece of cake.
And this is enjoyable, even if the movie’s attitude toward murder is a little disconcerting. There’s got to be at least a hundred deaths here, and that’s before the Secretary of Defense is shot in the face at point-blank range. This is shrugged off: “I guess he wasn’t very good at his job.” Maybe it’s Jim Carrey’s recent criticism of his own film, Kick-Ass 2–which in turn was inspired by the slaughter of schoolchildren in December 2012–but it’s difficult not to be conscious of the body count here. There’s no blood, but there is an eleven-year old girl who witnesses many of the deaths from nearby. Yet when the day is inevitably saved, she’s all smiles and thumbs-up and cracking jokes instead of huddled in fear and shock. I guess she’s her father’s daughter in that way: John Cale doesn’t huddle in fear and shock, he lunges at people carrying rocket launchers and crashes through skylights during the tussle. A live grenade is kicked toward him and he easily dives out of the way of the explosion. In fact, if there is anything to take away from White House Down, it’s that grenades are good for destroying everything but your enemies.
But then again, BLAM! BLAM! BLAM! BOOM! One of the things I saw in the trailer that made me excited for this movie was a scene where Cale and President Sawyer are in an SUV, doing donuts on the White House lawn and firing guns out the window. That actually happens in the movie! And it’s as glorious as I had hoped. You wouldn’t expect that a movie that takes place inside the confines of the White House would make room for a car-chase-gun-battle, but there it is. In the meantime, the Speaker of the House (Richard Jenkins) and General Caulfield (Lance Reddick, “The Wire”) and Secret Service agent Finnerty (Maggie Gyllenhaal) watch the scene unfold from a secure location, uncertain of how to proceed and watching things spiral further and further out of control. It’s tense in there, and the protracted silence when the Speaker is looked to for advice and doesn’t know exactly how to react are wonderful. Eventually, he asserts, “We’re not down yet.”
Luckily, these more traditionally dramatic aspects of the film don’t bog it down too much; we’re back to the action before things grow too heavy. Oh wow, the bad guys are firing surface-to-air missiles at helicopters sent in by the Vice President to control the situation – look at the helicopters explode into a ball of fire, spinning out of control and crashing into a fountain. Is that cool, or what? And through it all, Cale is just trying to get to his daughter (held hostage by the bad guys) and the President is there by his side, willing to pick up a gun and shoot a few dudes in the chest if it comes down to it. Yet the President retains his leadership and resolve, refusing to compromise his values in the face of adversity… as when he opts to let a child be killed instead of giving up the nuclear codes that would allow the head terrorist to wipe the Middle East off the face of the Earth.
I know I’m being kind of glib about the movie now, treating it like a mindless action flick. I mean… that is what it is, but it’s still a bit of an unfair assessment. Emmerich’s last outing of this magnitude was 2012, which was just awful. In comparison, a similarly destruction-heavy catastrophe fantasy like White House Down which is actually entertaining rather than aggravating is a major accomplishment. It’s certainly nothing original, and it’s unlikely to stick in the viewer’s mind for long after seeing it, but I’d say that White House Down does well for what it’s trying to be. It’s a light summer popcorn flick, but it’s not stupid. Yes, it sets its sights low, but it aims to please. I’d say that, for the most part, it hits the target.