White House Down

Reviewed By Peter Sobczynski
Posted 06/27/13 22:24:53

"Olympus Has Fallen Redux"
4 stars (Worth A Look)

I know that it seems as if I offer up some variation of this line nearly every week at this point but there is an excellent chance that the new action thriller "White House Down" may be the single most implausible movie of this summer that doesn't actually take place in another world or time and bear in mind, I have seen "Fast & Furious 6," not to mention "World War Z." However, unlike the idiocies on display in most of its competition, it is so cheerfully upfront and relentless in regards to its incredibly tenuous grip on coherence, common sense or the most basic rules of physics that it somehow develops a certain cheeseball charm that is undeniably effective. It may be cinematic junk food through and through and it may begin to hurt as soon as you start thinking about it in even the vaguest detail but even the most niggling of logic Nazis may well find themselves succumbing to its sheer goofiness.

Channing Tatum, better known as Hollywood's white meat of the moment, stars as John Cale, one of the founding members of the seminal rock group The Velvet Underground. I'm sorry--that is the wrong John Cale. This John Cale is an ordinary lunk whose personal baggage includes three tours of duty in Afghanistan, a young daughter, Emily (Joey King), who is obsessed with politics while resenting her dad for never being there when she is doing things like a flag routine for a school presentation, a job as a D.C. Capitol policeman assigned to guard the Speaker of the House (Richard Jenkins) and a dream of one day working for the Secret Service on the President's personal security detail. Since this is one of those films in which absolutely nothing goes to waste, with the possible exception of the brain cells of its viewers, you can be sure that each one of these seemingly random bits of character detail that are introduced in the first act are going to come back with a vengeance in the third--yes, even the flag routine.

Anyway, through his connection to the Speaker, Cale manages to get an interview for a Secret Service job and, in the hopes of mending fences with Emily, brings her along with him. Alas, the interview does not go well--it winds up being conducted by a former college classmate of Cale's (Maggie Gyllenhaal) who is all too familiar with his litany of personal and professional failings--but in order to save face, Cale tells Emily that things are looking good. Even this little fib blows up in his face when the two join a White House tour group that is visited by President James Sawyer (Jamie Foxx) himself and Emily brags about how her dad is going to be protecting him. Again, all of these elements will eventually pay off down the road--if there is one thing that this film is about, it is about tying up all the big loose ends. (Granted, it leaves about a billion smaller ones flapping in the breeze but hey, the movie is only a little over two hours and something has to give.)

Before long, more than just fibs begin blowing up as the White House is suddenly under siege from a group of attackers disguised as janitors and AV techs who take over the building so casually that they come across as the Bling Ring with a higher body count. During the attack, Cale and Emily are separated and when he slips off to try to find her, Cale manages to rescue Sawyer from a couple of his captors. From this point on, the film is a deadly game of cat and mouse in which the two attempt to find and rescue Emily, avoid or kill as many of the invaders as possible and try to figure out what their end game is. Thanks to video of the attack that Emily shot and loaded onto YouTube, it is discovered that the group includes former CIA contractors, mercenaries, white power fanatics and demented computer hackers who have all been put on Secret Service watch lists for specific threats against the President. Who could have possibly recruited such a disparate group of no-goodniks and helped them to make the corridors of power run red with blood as well as deficit ink? Of course, I would not dream of revealing this information. In completely unrelated news, James Woods also appears in the film as the head of the President's Secret Service detail, a man who is reeling from a personal tragedy, has only a few days left before his retirement and is played by James Woods.

"Wait a second," some of you may be asking at this point, "didn't I just see this damn movie a few months ago?" Well no, not if you paid attention to my review but yeah, this is the second film of 2013 to emerge with a plot involving a full-scale attack on the White House and an ordinary guy deemed not fit to be part of the Secret Service being the only person capable of saving both the president and the world at large from the elaborate and occasionally confused depravations of assorted villains. That earlier film was "Olympus Has Fallen" and it remains one of the more loathsome experiences that I have had in a movie theater this year. I understand that it was basically meant to be another "Die Hard" clone but despite its inherent silliness, it tried to take itself seriously at times and its half-assed stabs at dramatic power amidst the cartoonish carnage left a bad taste in my mouth. Furthermore, with its scenes of Cabinet members being beaten and shot, explosions rocking iconic sites and helicopters crashing on the White House lawn, I felt that it was trying to rouse audiences with incendiary imagery that it had not earned the right to exploit. Oh yeah, don't even get me started about its equally grisly attempts to make Gerard Butler into a sympathetic hero.

"White House Down" may contain a similar plot--very similar in some instances--as well as the same sort of potentially questionable imagery but it is nowhere near as off-putting this time around and that is almost entirely due to the different approach that it takes to the material. Instead of trying to pretend that it is gritty and realistic, this film wholly embraces its inherently ludicrous nature right from the get-go and goes for a tone similar to the old school disaster movies of the Seventies in which the most horrifying incidents imaginable were made at least somewhat palatable by coming across as a live-action cartoon spliced with exceptionally over-the-top soap operas. This may not be filmmaking at its most noble and profound and if mishandled, the results can be both unseemly and excruciating. However, when put in the right hands and done correctly, the end result can be the kind of unapologetically dopey entertainment whose effectiveness cannot be denied.

In the case of "White House Down," those hands belong, surprisingly enough, to Roland Emmerich, the uber-hack whose filmography includes such jumbo-sized works as "Independence Day," "The Day After Tomorrow" and "2012" and who is returning to the world of on-screen cinematic disaster after the genuine critical and commercial disaster that was his stab at "serious" filmmaking, the ridiculous "Anonymous." I have never been much of a fan of his headache-inducing previous efforts (this is a guy who somehow managed to take the seemingly surefire promise of a massively-scaled Godzilla movie and turned it into a lugubrious mess) but his heedless go-for-broke approach to moviemaking is exactly the touch required here. If the film had taken itself seriously for a second, it might have been appalling but thanks to Emmerich's willingness to push things further and further into pure craziness, it is impossible to get that upset over it unless you are determined to over-think things and in this case, you might be the only one.

The film is filled with action from start to finish and while it is all reasonably well-done (certainly more so than "Olympus Has Fallen," whose effects were often on the dodgy side), the moments of pure, unadulterated nonsense are the ones that tend to make more of an impact. Some of you will recall, for example, that arguably the most infamous image of Emmerich's entire career was of the White House being fried by aliens in "Independence Day." My guess is that other filmmakers in the same boat might have done anything to avoid even the vaguest comparison between the two so as not to inspire any bad laughs. Here, not only does Emmerich not avoid it, he actually has a character specifically make reference to that scene right at the beginning so as to underline it. Even more amazingly, this is not the most shamelessly insane moment to be had in the film--President Sawyer sees himself as being a politician in the mold of Lincoln and this through line pays off in ways that I dare not reveal lest you think that I am just lying to you. Sure, Emmerich's output may one day win him a Golden Turkey award but if he does score one, here is hoping that it comes equipped with a huge pair of brass ones.

Another thing that helps put "White House Down" across, almost in spite of itself, is the quality of the cast that was assembled. Clearly none of the participants signed on with the expectations of winning awards but instead of just going through the motions in exchange for large paydays, they all seem to be having fun with the material instead of condescending to it. Making his first big foray into the world of action blockbusters (assuming that you have forgotten than he was in "G.I. Joe," which I suspect would make him very happy), Channing Tatum once again demonstrates a flair for finding the right material to accentuate his gifts as a performer--instead of playing his character as a brutish badass, he instead plays up both his sweetness and underrated sense of humor and makes him infinitely more likable and interesting as a result. As the president, Jamie Foxx is admittedly doing a light spin on Obama (being a chief executive who is criticized by some for being too academic and unwilling to get his hands dirty and who is struggling to give up smoking) and likewise finds the right amusing touch to his character that allows one to believe (almost) in some of the nonsense that he becomes involved in. As for the bad guys, James Woods is basically playing himself or at least the perception that moviegoers have of him as someone who thinks he is smarter than everyone else in the room and is not at all hesitant to share that belief while Jason Clarke, as the former CIA contractor who serves as Woods' second-in-command, his appearance actually adds an additional level of verisimilitude to the proceedings seeing as how he is probably best known for playing a similar character, albeit one whose loyalties haven't yet turned, in the slightly more serious "Zero Dark Thirty."

Look, there are a lot of problems with "White House Down"--that cannot be denied. It goes on for a little too long, the end game of the bad guys is on the muddled side, the big final twist is so inane that you wonder why they even bothered, some of the other bits are so close to "Olympus Has Fallen" that some moviegoers will find themselves suffering from deja vu and the parts where the bad guys threaten Cale's young daughter by slapping her and pointing a gun at her head come pretty close to crossing the line between harmless entertainment and something far more unseemly. To be honest, these were the things that were foremost in my mind immediately after seeing it. As I got a little more distance from it, however, I found myself feeling a little more kindly towards it. Sure, it is a giant load from start to finish but as these things go, it is more or less the right kind of load. No one will consider it to be a masterpiece and it will probably be forgotten in a few months time but of all the mega-movies we have seen so far this summer, it is one of the very few where the notion of a second viewing sound mildly appealing rather than overtly threatening. At this point, who could ask for anything more?

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