Roland Emmerich does well with spectacle movies. Who can forget the indelible image of the White House being eviscerated by alien laser fire in Independence Day? Nor can one dismiss the awesome power of the tidal wave hitting New York City in The Day After Tomorrow. With his latest film, White House Down, Emmerich goes a little smaller scale, forgoing the globe-trotting antics of his previous disaster films and keeping his focus on a White House under siege. The result of this is a movie that could probably be seen an almost note-for-note remake of John McTiernan’s 1988 blockbuster Die Hard with a little bit Michael Bay’s 1996 film The Rock thrown in for good measure.
I consider both of those excellent action pictures, with Die Hard being the better of the two; both are extremely entertaining, suspenseful, and action-packed. They’re also both rated R by the Motion Picture Association of America, which provided them with a little more leeway as far as violence, bloodshed, and foul language go. White House Down manages to hold its own, but only just; Emmerich keeps the pace lively and tries his best to make us forget that this movie’s rated PG-13, submitting intensity for obscenity and implied violence in place of the real thing. What could have been an excellent action movie winds up being a relatively tame, family-friendly (save for one expletive) thriller, the kind you wouldn’t mind taking grandma or your 10-year-old to go see.
The movie itself is unobjectionable, as it doesn’t take too many risks; instead, it heads right into familiar territory. An off-duty cop gets trapped in a hostage situation against a team of well-trained mercenaries who bring along a computer geek to break into the structure’s systems in order to achieve their desired goals. Along the way, the cop gets aided by an African-American who’s a little out of his depth in tactical situations, and the higher-ups don’t trust him at all. He’s also got a family member in the battle zone, who winds up being the linchpin hostage once his identity is revealed. If this sounds like a summary of Die Hard, you’re right… but it’s almost a complete summary of White House Down. Off-duty Capitol Security agent John Cale (Channing Tatum) has just brought his estranged daughter Emily (Joey King) to the White House for a surprise tour, where President Obama analog James Sawyer (Jamie Foxx) has just declared that he’s going to draw back our military presence in the Middle East. That’s when a team headed by Emil Stenz (Jason Clarke) quickly and brutally overpowers the entire White House security force, with Cale narrowly escaping and fighting back against the mercenaries.
Even the name John Cale is only two letters removed from John McClane; Cale even winds up in a wifebeater and dress pants, an obvious throwback to McClane in the original Die Hard. Once you accept that White House Down is not going to be groundbreakingly original, then the fun can begin. However, the movie just slogs along for its 131-minute running time, with the typical Emmerich staple of treating characters like chattel coming to the fore early and often. As usually follows with Emmerich’s films, we are given just enough character exposition to try to generate some kind of kinship with them before everything goes to hell. People die by the scores in this movie, and it feels very nasty at times; one particular event is glossed over so quickly and efficiently (as it must be with government work) that the weight of the situation is never fully felt or realized. Also seen is Emmerich’s attempt at social commentary, with the 24-hour news cycle squarely in his gunsights; he makes a point to skewer and roast the way today’s media fuels our misunderstandings of any given situation. This, I thought, was the film’s strongest point, but it only lasts for so long before the movie has to move along to the next action setup.
Roland Emmerich films aren’t known for having terrific performances, and White House Down is no different from any of them. It’s as if everyone involved knew that they were going to get a big paycheck out of this film, which is a huge misuse of the cast he’s assembled. Jamie Foxx, a recent Oscar-winner, winds up nearly playing a role that Will Smith could’ve done in his sleep. Channing Tatum plays Cale as straight as possible, but that’s not saying much, considering that the whole movie feels like Emmerich’s direction consisted of “Run! Shoot! Drop to the floor!” Relative fresh face Joey King doesn’t fare too badly here, playing Cale’s child almost pitch-perfect as a stereotypical preteen who’s grown up on Wikipedia and YouTube, withdrawn from her family and living her life glued to her iPhone screen. The rest of the cast is largely just there to deliver lines, with not much thought or care put into the final product. Emmerich only seems to worry about blowing us through the back wall of the theater, with little thought to the concept of time or DC geography (as a citizen local to DC, I was mortified by watching completely illogical travel routes, either by air or land). White House Down is nothing more than an almost instantly-forgettable Saturday matinee popcorn flick. No higher thought is required to enjoy it; instead, the movie almost requires you to turn your brain off before settling down to watch it.
One last thought: what is Roland Emmerich’s predilection toward making audiences see the White House in fiery ruins?!
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