We review White House Down – Dumb fun… Emphasis on the dumb

5 min read
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German-born director Roland Emmerich has made a career from destroying this planet, and one of his favourite corners of civilization to rain unholy destruction upon is undoubtedly the White House. Earlier this year though, Antoine Fuqua attempted to steal Emmerich’s mojo when he had a couple of choleric North Koreans try to redecorate the Oval Office with American hemoglobin (crimson clashes with Gerard Butler’s eyes, so he was having none of it) in Olympus Has Fallen .

Now it’s time for Emmerich to take his schtick back back with White House Down, and well, he’s not taking this very seriously, is he?

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Now to be fair, “serious” is not usually a word associated with Emmerich’s works. Widescreen pyrotechnics, bleeding heart patriotism, precocious children and a hero cracking wise while his head is figuratively stuck in danger’s maw. These are the tools of Emmerich’s trade and you’ll find all of them on display here courtesy of James Vanderbilt’s (Zodiac, The Amazing Spider-Man) bombastic script which sees two-time Afghanistan war vet turned Capitol Police officer John Cale (Channing Tatum) just as geographically and chronologically challenged as the grandaddy of this genre, John McClane.

Cale, in an attempt to impress his politically obsessed and estranged 11-year old daughter Emily (Joey King), has taken her along to the White House, hoping to land a job with the Secret Service detail protecting President James W. Sawyer (Jamie Foxx). Unfortunately for his career ambitions, he runs into the stern mouth lines of Maggie Gyllenhaal’s buttoned down Special Agent Carol Finnerty, an unforgiving old flame who promptly reminds Cale of his inferior C-grade academic average and us of his everyman status.

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Fortunately for Cale, unfortunately for the soon to be panic stricken American populace, he gets an opportunity to prove all her admonishing glares wrong when a mysterious paramilitary group, led by Jason Clarke’s Stenz, infiltrates the White House, levels half of it in a fiery explosion, swiftly dispatches the cadre of the most inept Secret Service agents ever shown on screen and soon has President Sawyer with a gun in his face. Cue John Cale, who while trying to find his daughter after they’re separated in the explosive confusion, shows up in a hail of bullets and witticisms, rescues the Pres and proceeds to save the movie.

Tatum channels the previously mentioned McClane, completely with dirty wifebeater but with extra hair and glib, oozing natural charm in every scene, while Foxx’s peacenik President Sawyer – fresh from trying to negotiate a controversial Middle East peace treaty – is a Nike Jordans wearing, nicotine gum chewing Obama-lite who immediately takes the lead in the audience approval ratings.

Gyllenhaal and her co-stars, Richard Jenkins (as Speaker of the House Eli Raphelson) and Lance Reddick (as trigger happy General Caulfield), may stand around and look concerned with the best of them, newcomer Joey King may show a fresh-faced spunk that could see her becoming a bigger name in the future, and James Woods’ Head of Presidential Security Detail Martin Walker may nibble liberally on the scenery, but it’s the crackling camaraderie between the two mismatched heroes of Tatum and Foxx, almost impossible to not put a grin on your face, that is easily the film’s highlight. The pair banter like they were born to it, while climbing down dumbwaiters and over even dumber corpses, as they try to figure out just what these “enemy from within” terrorists – who almost uniformly end up as mustachioed cardboard cutouts – are up to.

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And while Vanderbilt’s pen gives that endgame enough twists and turns so that the end of the road isn’t readily visible, it also had me slapping my palm to my face so frequently that it must have sounded like some kind of sadomasochist drumline. Now I cut my movie teeth on this type of no-brainer blockbuster, and usually they get given a lot of slack when it comes to things like logic and physics and not speaking in catch phrases, but Emmerich returns to that unabashedly silly well just a little too much.

This is the type of movie where somebody says that the pen is mightier than the sword, and then later stabs somebody with his favourite piece of stationery while gleefully exclaiming “I choose the pen!”. And somehow still manages to keep a straight face.

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Emmerich tries to distract us from these foibles by showing us where the film’s $150 million budget went, and he half succeeds at it. No stranger to big action set pieces, the director pits his heroes against ever increasing odds, while showing that he can make inventive use of his limited real estate during a roundabout car-, SUV- and tank-chase on the White House lawn. Unfortunately the setup and cinematography of these scenes all have a “been there, done that” deja-kaboom feel to them, robbing them a bit of their wow factor. Not helping is inconsistent CGI that flip flops from from decent to “did they use up all the FX budget already?!”.

Olympus Has Fallen may have tried to play their White House takeover a little too serious for some (although not for me), but they at least did some basics better when it came to the overall filmmaking. White House Down doesn’t have a script so much as it has a series of cheesy coincidences linked by explosions and gun-fire. By going the light and fluffy route, they could still have overcomed this and trumped their scowling rival just through a wave of pure brainless enjoyment. Unfortunately a small handful of not-too-bad action scenes and the not-inconsiderable charm of it’s lead actors is not enough to stop what could have been dumb fun from just being mostly dumb.

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Last Updated: June 28, 2013

Kervyn Cloete

A man of many passions - but very little sleep - I've been geeking out over movies, video games, comics, books, anime, TV series and lemon meringues as far back as I can remember. So show up for the geeky insight, stay for the delicious pastries.

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