Silver Screen: White House Down ***
In a summer full of tepid blockbusters, one of the best action movies is also one of the worst. In contrast to the season’s blandly competent superhero and sci-fi offerings, White House Down is gloriously stupid. Director Roland Emmerich makes the incorrect choice at nearly every turn, yet somehow 157 wrongs add up to something strangely right. Whether or not he knows his calamity of a disaster movie dances on the line of parody doesn’t even seem pertinent. He’s created some kind of hybrid between spoof-er and spoof-ee: It’s Top Gun and Hot Shots rolled into one, Dragnet and Police Squad defying physics by occupying the same space at the same time.
The film follows the same knockoff Die Hard-in-the-White House formula as this year’s earlier, nearly identical Olympus Has Fallen. Once more an off-duty officer of the law happens to be in the vicinity when a terrorist group seizes control of the White House and attempts to hold the president hostage as part of a larger global scheme. Once more our man must team up with the leader of the free world to save a child, root out the conspiracy, dispatch the bad guys, and return America to prosperity in about two hours.
This time around, the John McClane stand-in is John Cale (Channing Tatum), a would-be Secret Service agent who can’t land the job due to poor grades in school, despite having his ex-girlfriend (Maggie Gyllenhaal) lead the search committee. He’s taking his impossibly precocious daughter (Joey King) on a tour of the president’s pad when a coalition of white supremacists and mercenaries set off a bomb and stage a coup from within the Secret Service, trapping the president (Jamie Foxx) and dozens of hostages inside.
It’s all but impossible not to compare White House Down to Olympus Has Fallen. The close proximity of their release only further highlights how, on paper, they are the exact same movie. Yet the comparison is also instructive because, though they share wooden dialogue and wildly implausible plot twists, White House Down is infinitely more fun than its grim, self-serious double.
Olympus Has Fallen starred the eternally grimacing Gerard Butler, and the movie reveled in bloody mass casualties as the citizens of Washington, D.C. were run over, blown up, and machine-gunned in graphic detail. White House Down conversely benefits from its PG-13 rating and softer, sillier approach. The core premise is already so ridiculous that there are no real benefits to approaching it as though it had any gravity. So whereas Antoine Fuqua made Olympus into something bloody and bleak, Emmerich, working from a spectacularly preposterous script from James Vanderbilt, turns his movie into a full-on cartoon.
While Olympus’s lantern-jawed president (Aaron Eckhart) stood tall against the bad guys and made noble speeches, White House Down’s blatant Barack Obama stand-in literally puts on a pair of Air Jordans and helps kick terrorist ass. Foxx plays the president as though he’s the incarnation of what the most idealistic liberals expected from Obama: smart, lighthearted, and determined to fight against war and the military-industrial complex even if that means he’ll have to forsake a second term and shoot a rocket launcher out of the window of a moving limousine.
A cartoon president in a cartoon movie deserves cartoon villains, and Foxx gets a grab-bag of assorted baddies. James Woods is the beleaguered mastermind whose faith in the government has caused him to forsake his oath as head of the Secret Service; Zero Dark Thirty’s Jason Clarke is the steely paramilitary man seeking revenge for his fallen comrades; Jimmi Simpson is a cliché of a cliché of a hacker, dressed in black and ceaselessly spouting egomaniacal soliloquies; and Kevin Rankin is a neo-Nazi who looks like a G.I. Joe toy covered in white-power prison ink. What do all these guys have in common? Absolutely nothing, which makes their elaborately coordinated scheme even more howlingly improbable.
White House Down is the kind of movie that projects its every move with foreshadowing so thick it nearly qualifies as a solar eclipse. When a character casually mentions he keeps an antique pocketwatch “right over my heart,” you can damn well bet that watch will stop a bullet later on. The hysterical script even manages to bring around a little girls’ color-guard flag-waving routine into a climactic callback that also happens to bring about the movie’s most asinine image.
The only thing keeping the outlandish material from crumbling is reinforcement from some top-notch supporting players, including the aforementioned Gyllenhaal, Woods, and Clarke, as well as Richard Jenkins, Lance Reddick, and Michael Murphy. This crew somehow delivers their hoary lines with straight faces, which only adds to the fun.
I’m almost positive Emmerich, director of Independence Day (as well as 2012, The Day After Tomorrow, and Godzilla), did not intend for me to enjoy any part of White House Down in the way I actually enjoyed it. If he’d been trying to make a wink-and-nudge pseudo-comedy, he’d never be able to pull it off so well. That’s the beauty of this perfectly stupid piece of non-art, which is such a sterling example of brainless summer moviemaking that it becomes a referendum on the whole callous, pandering enterprise.
Follow Bryan Miller on Twitter@bmillercomedy.