Review: 'White House Down' Bursts with Typical Emmerich Action
by Jeremy Kirk
June 28, 2013
This year has been a rough year for the White House. Other than the actions of Cobra, two films feature central premises of terrorists taking the building over and a lone agent attempting to rescue the President. The Antoine Fuqua-directed Olympus Has Fallen was rough around the edges, but Roland Emmerich - he who brought us Independence Day and 2012 - has a different approach for White House Down. More in tune with the summer blockbusters around it, it's an incessant barrage of dumb fun, an action film that would have been perfect in the 90s. If that's your thing, your brain has already been checked at the door.
You could pretty much copy and paste the synopsis from Olympus Has Fallen substituting Jamie Foxx for Aaron Eckhart as POTUS and Channing Tatum for Gerard Butler as the rogue agent trying to rid the White House of bad guys. Foxx's President Sawyer is making bold attempts at pulling troops from the Middle East and piecing together peace talks between the foreign nations. However, a group of mercenaries led by Jason Clarke have other plans, and the building is soon under their control with only Tatum's John Cale to stop them. Fortunately, unlike Olympus Has Fallen, the President gets to assist in the nonstop action here. Cue the explosions.
That last line goes without saying when Roland Emmerich is involved. The man made his biggest mark in 1996 when he first blew up the White House as Independence Day's centerpiece special effect. As if the last 17 years of cinema never even happened, White House Down launches itself onto the screen with CG-laden action set pieces abounding. The effects aren't bad here, just obvious, and it's unfortunate when they take you out of the action just as Emmerich's solid pacing is driving you further in.
The story by James Vanderbilt (The Rundown and The Amazing Spider-Man) is thin, many sequences and plot points coming off as derivative of The Rock as much as it is Die Hard. A small group of tourists are held captive, Cale's daughter (Joey King) included. The motives behind the White House taking are right in line with General Hummel's reasoning for taking over Alcatraz, though Vanderbilt has a roundabout way of expressing this. You know there will be double crosses. You're pretty sure the mercenaries here have an inside man, and if you're paying any attention in the film's first 30 minutes you can take a pretty strong guess as to who it is. Fortunately that "twist" hits early, and the film's real villain - not to be revealed here - is able to actually play the baddie for much of its runtime.
Speaking of which, White House Down runs well over two hours, just another indication that it's intended for summer audiences. As is usually the case, the length isn't justified, and many of the latter action pieces feel like they are getting to the wrap-up. And then the film keeps going. Then it goes a little longer.
Even so, the movie has enough to throw at us and does so with just enough flash and speed to keep the overall momentum going. Even when Emmerich cuts back to the "control room" where Generals and politicians are watching on via computer monitor, the director makes every attempt at keeping the intensity levels up. White House Down boasts a number of high points, gunfights and even a suspenseful car chase around the building's front lawn. But none of these, exciting as they may be, are as entertaining as the buddy action movie going on between Tatum and Foxx.
Individually, each actor seems to be giving 50% at the most. It's hard to ask for more in a movie that's meant to be taken as seriously as this. Tatum's badass but loving father is only slightly more believable than Foxx's scrupulous and energetic Commander in Chief. It's when the two are together that they seem to be at play more, as if the thrill of diving across furniture to evade whizzing bullets and blowing up SUVs filled with mercenaries is all in a day's fun. They even get into some good, old fashioned buddy action banter, though not enough to rival the great action duos.
They're still loads more entertaining to watch than much of the supporting players. Maggie Gyllenhaal and James Woods as members of the Presidential security detail, Richard Jenkins as Speaker of the House, and Clarke as top dog merc all seem to be on a kind of autopilot. Some of them aren't even at that 50% where the leads are holding for most of the film. Again, it's difficult to expect more when the real selling point here is wanton chaos and action action action.
On that front, White House Down delivers. It's just fun enough to forgive the shallowness, just exciting enough to look past the hokey visual effects. Emmerich takes the right approach with tongue planted firmly in cheek, even letting one of the characters name-drop Independence Day as a film where the White House blows up. The director is still doing that very same thing, and though White House Down's edges have been buffed down to a pristine, PG-13 smoothness, the entertainment value is undeniable. Especially if you haven't seen a film since Independence Day.
Jeremy's Rating: 7.5 out of 10