White House Down: Film Review

White House Down Tatum Foxx - H 2013
Columbia Pictures

White House Down Tatum Foxx - H 2013

There's scant originality here, but witnessing America's hearth and home under siege still brings an emotional frisson to the silly thrills.

Channing Tatum and Jamie Foxx join forces as the presidential residence comes under attack by paramilitary thugs in Roland Emmerich's latest action thriller.

Time to call in the construction crew, the decorators and the landscapers -- Roland Emmerich has trashed 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue again, only this time he also chews up the lawn. A self-referential nod to Independence Day notwithstanding, the director’s derivative gaze in White House Down turns mainly toward the Die Hard franchise. He adds a little Air Force One patriotic peril, some Lethal Weapon buddy banter and Homeland-style national security angst, resulting in an action thriller that doesn’t know when to quit. For the most part, though, it remains preposterously entertaining, which should make it a sturdy entry in the early-summer popcorn stakes.

The question hanging over this $150 million Sony release is to what extent it'll be hurt by coming just three months after Antoine Fuqua’s similarly plotted Olympus Has Fallen became a surprise hit for FilmDistrict. Has the public’s appetite for D.C. destruction been whetted or exhausted?

In its corner, Emmerich’s film has a user-friendly PG-13 rating in place of the earlier release’s R. It also trades up by swapping dour Gerard Butler for the simpatico pairing of Channing Tatum and Jamie Foxx, even if screenwriter James Vanderbilt (The Amazing Spider-Man) wavers in his commitment to teasing out the humor in their rapport.

VIDEO: 'White House Down' Trailer: Channing Tatum's Secret Service Interview Goes Awry

While black U.S. presidents have turned up onscreen before, Foxx’s James Sawyer is the closest yet to an Obama clone, an association conveyed without much subtlety. A warm-hearted idealist, his silken oratorical skills are on display, whether charming his staffers or the American public in a televised address to push his proposed Middle East peace treaty. His most prized possession is an engraved pocket watch given by Mary Todd to Honest Abe, which we know will come in handy at some point.

However, the cheers let out by an advance-screening audience when the Commander in Chief trades his executive brogues for hi-tops and his non-violent stance for some gun-toting whoop-ass give a clear indication of the Foxx persona that folks want to see.

Emmerich and Vanderbilt can be commended for taking time to establish characters, rather than hurtling into the melee, which is generally required these days. Most of the early scenes are devoted to ex-Marine-turned-Capitol cop John Cale (Tatum). Assigned as security to House Speaker Eli Raphelson (Richard Jenkins), John has called in favors for an interview to get on the President’s Secret Service detail. That’s partly to help the divorced dad reclaim the affections of his 11-year-old daughter Emily (Joey King), a major White House geek with her own D.C.-focused YouTube channel. (Really?) John’s glib manner doesn’t help him in the interview, nor does the fact that it’s conducted by Special Agent Carol Finnerty (Maggie Gyllenhaal), an old college flirt aware of his lousy track record on follow-through.

The character is a carbon copy of Bruce Willis’ wisecracking John McClane, right down to spending half the movie working up a sweat in a wife-beater. But it’s a snug fit for Tatum, who strikes the right balance between everyman screw-up and quick-thinking, fearless dynamo, equally determined to rescue his daughter and protect the President. And with its secret underground passageways, private chambers and antique-adorned public halls and offices, the White House is a worthy successor to Nakatomi Plaza, still the best of the Die Hard settings.

STORY: Will the Success of 'Olympus Has Fallen' Hurt or Help 'White House Down'?

In the wrong place-wrong time tradition, John, after botching the Secret Service interview, tags along with Emily on a White House tour. But when the kid slips away to the bathroom, a bomb is detonated that brings down the Capitol dome, leaving father and daughter separated as chaos ensues. At the same time, a group of paramilitary thugs, led by former Special Forces operative Emil Stenz (Jason Clarke), seizes the POTUS pad. This happens on the day that Secret Services chief Martin Walker (James Woods) is retiring, embittered by the death of his son on active duty.

The notion that in a post 9/11 world anyone could smuggle in a major explosive device tucked under floor-cleaning fluids is borderline ludicrous, as is the heavy-duty weaponry packed by technicians who are supposedly upgrading the sound system in the President’s private screening room. But then nobody was expecting documentary authenticity from Emmerich, right? What the director lacks in finesse, he makes up for in his wholehearted embrace of Hollywood cliché, without the vulgarity or cynicism of, say, Michael Bay.

Vanderbilt angles for a pass on the implausibility by giving the bad guys well-placed accomplices on the inside. But the script is both shamelessly formulaic and over-complicated, as it plays on terrorism paranoia, gung-ho patriotism, blundering media and the demonization of defense contractors. While the movie wears out its welcome en route to a conclusion that’s equal parts twisty and predictable, the appealing leads’ camaraderie and virtually non-stop bullets-and-explosives action of the second half keep you watching.

Foxx appears somewhat reined-in by the role at first, but he loosens up nicely as the stakes get higher, allowing his natural humor and physicality to surface by degrees. (His Jamie Foxx Show crush Garcelle Beauvais turns up briefly as the First Lady.) Tatum brings an effortless combination of self-irony and swagger that makes him a likable action hero.

Even if the characters are strictly boilerplate (redneck neo-Nazis are so ‘90s), the cast of pros helps put them across. Gyllenhaal is a little soft to play hard-edged workaholic Carol, but she provides useful testosterone relief. Woods’ distinctive brand of moral ambiguity is always welcome, as is Jenkins’ dignified intelligence. Bristling with anger issues, Clarke once again proves a strong presence, and Lance Reddick vies for the title of Most Intense Man Alive as military brass General Caulfield.

It seems almost quaint at this point not to be looking through 3D glasses at scenes with low-flying Black Hawk choppers barreling down the Mall, target-locking missiles slicing the air or the presidential limo tearing up the turf in a chase scene played partly for laughs. But cinematographer Anna J. Foerster gives the movie a slick sheen, and the CGI work is mostly sharp. The underscoring by Thomas Wander and Harald Kloser is wallpapered early on but works fine when the film kicks into suspense mode.

Opens: Friday, June 28 (Sony)

Production companies: Mythology Entertainment, Centropolis Entertainment

Cast: Channing Tatum, Jamie Foxx, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Jason Clarke, Richard Jenkins, Joey King, James Woods, Nicolas Wright, Jimmi Simpson, Michael Murphy, Rachelle Lefevre, Lance Reddick, Matt Craven

Director: Roland Emmerich

Screenwriter: James Vanderbilt

Producers: Bradley J. Fischer, Harald Kloser, James Vanderbilt, Larry Franco, Laeta Kalogridis

Executive producers: Ute Emmerich, Channing Tatum, Reid Carolin

Director of photography: Anna J. Foerster

Production designer: Kirk M. Petruccelli

Music: Thomas Wander, Harald Kloser

Costume designer: Lisy Christi

Editor: Adam Wolfe

Visual effects supervisors: Volker Engel, Marc Weigert

PG-13 rating, 133 minutes