A self-aware disaster film with a taste for the absurd, White House Down fuses the best assets of director Roland Emmerich and writer James Vanderbilt. Not far off from an Independence Day/Zodiac crossover, the Washington-set extravaganza sports an insane ebb and flow of tongue-in-cheek political writing, action sequences extending way beyond credulity…and blockhead stupidity. All packed into one overstuffed film that refuses to bore, the high-wire balancing is commendable, while its penchant for dumb touches makes it one of the more interesting recent blockbusters.
The slightly left-of-center answer to Olympus Has Fallen, unlike that flop Emmerich’s film shows what intentionally cheeky writing, a director with a knack for action, and a cast who can *gasp* play off one another can accomplish. More in line with Vanderbilt’s Amazing Spider-Man script than his meticulously researched David Fincher thriller, as Secret Service interviewee John Cale (Channing Tatum) and his politics-crazed daughter Emily (Joey King) drive to the White House and throughout their subsequent tour, the screenwriter nonetheless packs enough trivia to suggest a post-credits quiz. While the info dumps and character front-loading suggest typical big-budget laziness, a good bit of these details surprisingly factor in later and serve as a fine prelude for the wild times to come.
Following a ridiculous chain of events that places Capitol Hill on lockdown, White House Down hits its stride when Cale rescues President James Sawyer (Jamie Foxx) from rogue Secret Service head Martin Walker (James Woods) and his mercenary cohorts. A clear Obama stand-in, down to the Nicorette popping and mention of his days in the Illinois legislature, Foxx is far more comfortable here than with the heavier lifting of Django Unchained. A serious yet accessible leader of the free world, the oddity of a President as a gunslinging, bullet-dodging hero results in unexpected humor alongside pending death and terror. Swapping one-liners in the heat of battle, he and Tatum (back on his action/comedy home turf of 21 Jump Street) are a dream team of male chemistry and noticeably revel in this political fantasia.
Running tandem to the residential mayhem are some tense leadership decisions, courtesy of the film’s impressive supporting cast. Holed up in a crowded underground command center, Secret Service agent Carol Finnerty (Maggie Gyllenhaal), Speaker of the House Raphelson (Richard Jenkins), and Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Caulfield (Lance Reddick) scramble to make sense of a confusing, volatile situation. In communication with both Cale/Sawyer and Walker, the complex cat-and-mouse maneuverings rival the Die Hard tribute inside the White House, their decisions just as crucial, if not more so.
With Emmerich and Vanderbilt’s imaginations running wild, it’s only natural that some of it lands with a thud. The large-scale special effects are often lackluster, the necessity of creating from scratch a Capitol Hill under attack showing its artificial nature. Content-wise, some lines are unnecessarily bad, as if Vanderbilt just can’t resist taking shots at the anarchist militants and wronged operatives who would resort to treason. On the whole, however, the intersection of politics and explosions works as solid entertainment and, though fleeting, even its idealistic political concepts mostly come off smoothly. In a film where bulletproof cars have a shootout while circling the White House lawn’s fountain, why not try for ambitious peace plans for the Middle East and critique the military-industrial complex? When such attempts don’t impede the film’s flow, anything seems possible, and it’s precisely this kind of broad imagination that makes White House Down so much fun.
Rated PG-13 for prolonged sequences of action and violence including intense gunfire and explosions, some language and a brief sexual image.
White House Down is currently playing at the Carolina Cinemas on Hendersonville Rd.