After the initial success of Die Hard there was a time when every movie studio was trying to cash in on the concept of a great action star (usually a cop or specially trained soldier) in the wrong place at the wrong time and forced to save the day (which almost always also included endangered hostages and some kind of robbery or cash grab). We got Die Hard on a plane, Die Hard on a boat, Die Hard on a bus, Die Hard on a train, and so on. More than 25 years later Hollywood still hasn’t given up on the formula.
Much like Olympus Has Fallen, released earlier this year, White House Down offers us a story of a terrorist attack on Washington D.C. and the capture of the White House, the President of the United States, and several high ranking members of the United States Government. Where Antoine Fuqua‘s film struggled to be Michael Bay-style action porn, director Roland Emmerich‘s movie has a far better sense of humor and an understanding of the complete ridiculousness of its entire premise. Don’t get me wrong, the movie is dumb as dirt at times, but at least it knows this.
Our story begins with a U.S. Capitol Police Officer John Cale (Channing Tatum) and his estranged daughter Emily (Joey King) taking a tour of the White House immediately following Cale’s less than successful interview with an old friend (Maggie Gyllenhaal) for a role with the Secret Service. With Cale separated from his daughter the Capitol Building and the White House come under attack by a relative small force of domestic terrorists who easily dispatch the very limited resistance the Secret Service and other White House police represent. (Seriously, the White House is easier to take down than a Quick Trip.)
Over the next two hours, with no back-up and with only the weapons and supplies he can take from the terrorists, John Cale works to 1) Find and keep President Sawyer (Jamie Foxx) safe, 2) Save his daughter, and 3) Rescue the rest of the 70 or so hostages and make it out alive. And he will attempt all of this with Emmerich delivering far less disaster porn than either fans of this work are used to or the movie’s trailer suggests. In fact, White House Down only has a handful of huge actions sequences (including the silliest scene of the movie involving a chase between armored vehicles on the White House lawn where the inclusion of “Yakety Sax” wouldn’t seem inappropriate).
From a logic issue James Vanderbilt‘s script leaves quite a lot to be desired. Even with the help of an inside man (James Woods) and the world’s greatest hacker (Jimmi Simpson), the attack on the White House is far too easy to be believed. The script also gets itself into trouble with several twists during its final act about the true purpose of the attack and what the terrorists are really after. And then, of course, there’s the film’s climax which (like most of the film’s over two-hour running time) is filled with several groan-worthy moments as the story amps up the danger to preposterous levels and builds on loose plot threads from the film’s first act to wrap-up the story.
Tatum is always a bit bland for my tastes, but he does what he can as the latest of many John McClane clones we’ve seen over the years. Most of the comedy of the film comes more from Foxx than Tatum, and I’ll admit their odd-couple-buddy story worked better than I expected. Joey King is well-cast as the spunky Emily (even if the script doesn’t always do her character any favors). Woods is mostly sleepwalking through another ill-defined villainous role, and most of the terrorists and various political and military staff we see dealing with the situation are completely forgettable.
White House Down isn’t a good movie, but it might provide the kind of guilty pleasure that harkens back to more humorous old school action films that fans enjoy. You’ll do as much groaning and laughing at the story as you will laughing at the intended jokes. To say it’s better than Olympus has Fallen is faint praise at best, but I will say even with the number of times I questioned the sanity of everyone involved in the project I never really found it dull. Stupid, to be sure, but never dull. I guess that’s something.