If Olympus Has Fallen was the right-wing jingoistic version of what would happen if terrorists took over the White House, then White House Down has to be its left-wing sibling. Unlike the ultra-violent Gerald Butler film which took its “America! Eff yea!” shtick way too seriously, this one, the latest blow-em-up from disaster maestro Roland Emmerich, is a considerably lighter and funnier trifle that coasts on the chemistry between charisma magnets Channing Tatum and Jamie Foxx, and Emmerich’s unmistakable brand of gleeful destruction porn.
Tatum plays John Cale, a perpetual underachiever who works as a security escort for the Speaker of the House (Richard Jenkins). When the movie opens, he’s off to the White House with his daughter Emily (Joey King) to interview for a position in the secret service with Carol Finnerty (Maggie Gyllenhaal). When she flat-out rejects him for being a failure at everything, he decides to blow-off steam by accompanying young Emily – a history buff – on the tour of the presidential palace.
Of course, this is when the terrorists decide to attack. Soon after bombing the Capitol building as a diversion, they take over the White House. In the ensuing chaos, John and Emily get separated but daddy Tatum isn’t going to wait around twiddling his thumbs with the rest of the hostages. So what does he do? Like all John McLane clones, he takes this as the opportune moment to escape and flex his fancy machine gun skills – an opportunity that only ripens when he saves Barack Obama stand-in President James Sawyer (Jamie Foxx) from the clenches of the gun-toting redneck bad guys.
From then on, the movie plays it by the Die Hard book: John and Sawyer take out the bad guys one-by-one; they climb in and out of elevator ducts; they bicker and bond like buddy cops do; the military is constantly foiled; the event becomes a media circus; one of the bad guys is a smart-ass computer nerd who has to hack into an ultra-secure database; Tatum strips down to a wife-beater; there’s a traitor among the cops; World War 3 is foiled etc… etc… Hell, the bad guys even play Beethoven.
It’s formulaic to the bone but White House Down works because there’s never a moment that’s played all too seriously. Emmerich, who already destroyed the world in Independence Day, The Day After Tomorrow and 2012, plays the drama mostly tongue-firmly-in-cheek, infusing every over-the-top action scene with humor. This is most evident in the last act when the movie evolves into a straight-up camp fest in which people start spewing ridiculous lines like “The pen is mightier than the sword!” “No I don’t want cake! I’m diabetic!” and “If you don’t stop him in eight minutes, you’ll start World War 3!” Thing get so absurd that I could make a case for White House Down being a satire of the Die Hard genre, but that’d be giving Emmerich too much credit.
Ultimately, the reason why White House Down remains watchable in spite of its stupidity is the dynamic between Tatum and Foxx; and the two are spectacular together. Foxx isn’t a movie president on the level of Harrison Ford, Michael Douglas or Bill Pullman but he handles himself better than Aaron Eckhart did in Olympus Has Fallen. He doesn’t play Sawyer as a heroic guy which is a welcome change, and he never showboats. A scene where he kills a bad guy using his Jordans is a 10 on the scale of sheer stupidity but I laughed because of the way Foxx plays the scene – both terrified and frustrated. Tatum, a gifted physical performer, makes a typically good action hero but he works best in the comic scenes with Foxx. White House Down doesn’t even come remotely close to essential cinema but it’s fun and light-hearted. In a summer rife with dark, brooding and pretentious blockbusters, it’s nice to see something stupid again.