“How are you still awake?”
“Coffee and patriotism, sir.”
Roland Emmerich has destroyed the White House in both Independence Day (Yay!) and 2012 (Boo!), and he’s at it again in his latest flick. When terrorists attack President Jamie Foxx’s home and take hostages, it’s up to Secret Service Agent (candidate) Channing Tatum to save the day, as well as his daughter, who is among the hostages. What follows is an attempt to pay homage to action greats like Die Hard, to varying levels of success. Maggie Gyllenhaal is also here, for some reason, providing cuteness and obligatory “the stakes have never been higher” dialogue.
After announcing a plan to withdraw all troops from the entire Middle East, Jamie Foxx’s President Sawyer finds his home under siege by villains led by an inside man. I won’t spoil the surprise, but it should only take about five minutes from the start of the film to put most of the plot together, not that we care about that; we’re here to see action, adventure, and Channing Tatum killing people until they die from it.
In this aspect, the movie fails in the way so many other big budget tentpoles do, in that it is absolutely neutered by its PG-13 rating. Some movies can avoid looking lame by focusing on big stunts, giant explosions, or some kind of comic hook (or in the case of Live Free or Die Hard, all three!), but the big setpieces in this film are knock-down, drag-out fistfights between Channing Tatum and whatever bad guy he comes across. There are multiple occasions in the film where I wasn’t sure if Channing had punched a thug or sliced him with a combat knife. The whole movie is very clean, and for a film intended to pay homage to one of the great action films of all time, Die Hard, it comes across as shallow and less than half-cocked. It’s less Die Hard and more A Good Day To Die Hard.
Compare Handsome Channing
To John McClane, Put Through The Wringer
Now Tell Me Who’s More Human And Relatable, The NYPD Detective Or The Secret Service Wannabe?
It plays the “Die Hard on an X” trope to the tee, introducing us to Channing Tatum’s hard-working but unlucky John Cale. He’s a hell of a lot prettier than Bruce Willis, but also comes across, as Channing ALWAYS does, as a fashion model pretending to be an ass-kicker. He’s neither genuinely believable nor a very good actor, and the producers knew this, so they threw Jamie Foxx in to the mix in an effort to add some much-needed charisma to the heroes. Unfortunately, Foxx seems to be running on sleep mode in his role as the least charismatic president since Franklin Pierce. He delivers his presidential speeches like he’s sleepwalking through a Jay Pharoah SNL sketch, before screaming one-liners and looking like he’s having a good time. Some scenes he’s scared of guns and bad guys, other scenes he’s fist-fighting and trying to playing the action hero, albeit unsuccessfully. You may try and call it character development, but I say it’s just an uncaring director saying, “Eh, do whatever you want, I don’t care.” Foxx is essentially playing a different character every scene, lending his performance an unprecedented level of inconsistency, a running theme through the whole film. He appears to be having more fun with acting alongside Channing Tatum, but then, the movie separates them too often and for too long, often for such arbitrary reasons as, “Just stay here because I said so.”
“Don’t hit me in the head with a rocket while I’m trying to drive!”
The film spends the first 95 minutes or so of its 130-minute running time trying and failing to be a PG-13 Die Hard clone. There are gun fights, but they aren’t very good. There are one-liners, but they aren’t very funny. There’s the obligatory, and endless, scene of the bad guys walking through the hallways killing every secret service agent before they can even remove their guns from their holsters. In Air Force One, at least they got to shoot back. Hell, in Star Wars: A New Hope, they even took down a couple of Stormtroopers! Then we have our villains. The muscle of the group is played by the perpetually anonymous Jason Clarke, who brings nothing to the role other than saying “damn” when he really wants to say “fu*k.” He’s the main physical villain, the only one who really goes toe-to-toe with Tatum, and there’s no hamminess at all. He’s just… There. Then we have Jimmi Simpson as the snarky hacker guy who thankfully eats up the scenery with enough reckless abandon to bring to mind Theo, the bespectacled hacker from Die Hard. He’s amusing, but he’s the only villain in the film with any kind of charisma at all. Even the main antagonist, though his motives are actually quite righteous, and provocative for a summer action movie, fails to compel us to his side by fleshing out his sob story. In fact, there are only two working elements in the early stages of the movie. First, there’s Cale’s daughter, played by Joey King, who we so adored as China Doll in Oz: The Great and Powerful. She’s cute as a button, defiant towards her captors, and is a great plucky youngster. The second is a scene in which helicopters (CGI, of course) fly really low to the ground, through the city streets. I thought it looked cool.
“Gerald Ford built this tunnel so the press wouldn’t have to see him walk back and forth in his trunks.”
The best part of the film comes near the end, when director Roland Emmerich says, “Screw it, we’re just gonna go nuts,” and the movie decides to become awesome. The fist fights become more audacious, the direction of said fights becomes more coherent and less jumpy, the explosions are more frequent, the car chases become a delicious parody of themselves, the dialogue gets more snappy, and the movie suddenly becomes a fun, self-aware blockbuster, more concerned with getting the audience to cheer than making any kind of sense. It’s definitely not Independence Day, but it deserves some credit, along with World War Z, for really turning the experience around in the third act, even if it is too late to save the movie as a whole.
White House Down isn’t one of the mega-budgeted disaster movies that its director is known for, but it comes close to being a disaster. Somehow, against all odds, the film is ultimately able to reverse its misfortune and end the day as a fun popcorn flick. Not enough to heartily recommend, but enough to stop flipping channels when you stumble upon it on HBO a few months from now.
“You wanna make history?”
“Not history. A difference.”
PS: There’s one scene where a bad guy gets shot at close range by a truck-mounted minigun, for about five seconds straight, with what must be hundreds of bullets, and he doesn’t bleed, or even have any exit wounds on the back of his jacket. Whatever.