7/4/2013 - Channing "Shirts are for Losers" Tatum and Jamie "President Obama" Foxx must save the White House – no, the world – from total destruction in White House Down, a whirlwind of explosions and plot insanity from Roland Emmerich (director of such world-destroying films as Independence Day, The Day After Tomorrow and 2012).
John Cale (Tatum) is a Capitol police officer who spends his days guarding Speaker of the House Raphelson (Richard Jenkins) but dreams of joining the Secret Service. At an interview with Secret Service Deputy Somethingerother Carol Finnerty (Maggie Gyllenhaal), though, we learn that Cale's history includes a fair amount of walking away from things. Finnerty, a high school acquaintance, remembers him as a college dropout. I've changed, says Cale. But, perhaps because he doesn't think to take his shirt off (yet), Finnerty tells him it’s not likely a White House job is in his future.
Cale doesn't tell his daughter Emily (Joey King) this, though. He's brought her along on the interview so they can take a White House tour together. She's a nerd for presidential history and a huge fan of President Sawyer (Foxx). When she sees the president, her girly enthusiasm even gets him to answer a question for her video blog. Naturally, it's a surprisingly astute question about Sawyer's plan to get the world to agree to a Middle East peace agreement wherein, if I understand the movie correctly, somehow Russia and France and other G8 nations would be part of signing something that leads to U.S. troops leaving "the Middle East" and peace, er, happening. The military industrial complex is, we're told, against this. (Yes, you probably have questions but save them for later or, more specifically, for never because the movie is not really interested in fleshing this out. Suffice to say: Sawyer wants to do something Good; Bad people want to stop him.)
And now that we have our characters in place, ka-boom! First, a bomb goes off at the U.S. Capitol, eventually causing the dome to collapse. Then, an attack on the White House begins, with Sawyer being led to safety by Secret Service veteran Walker (James Woods), who is, but of course, in his last week before retirement. But wait! Because it's Woods and because he meaningfully took off his American flag pin before coming to work, we know something is amiss. Soon, the bad guys close in on the president, just seconds from taking him hostage. And who should appear but the wannabe Secret Service agent, armed with a bad-guy gun and ready to take off his shirt and do a little butt-kicking (Tatum's character starts out in an interview appropriate suit but somehow ends up in a sleeveless undershirt).
Remember in The Day After Tomorrow where the cold (as identified by a CGI encrystaling of everything in its path) actually chased characters into rooms? That is the level of sense-making that White House Down works on. And just like The Day After Tomorrow had a scene in which both the cold and wolves chased characters through the New York City Library, White House Down has plenty of scenes wherein, say, highly trained terrorists can't hit one running Channing Tatum. Or where the key to the investigation is one little girl's use of YouTube. Or where a hacker, working on worming his way in to an ultra-secure government system, has on his screen a bar that tells him what percentage into the system he has hacked, like he's downloading Olympus Has Fallen from iTunes to see how his little adventure is going to end. White House Down is, in its smartest moments, absurd and in its dumbest moments, laugh-out-loud funny.
Are you really looking to White House Down to be your smartly written thriller that blends tension and political insight? Because I personally was looking to this movie for explosions and Channing Tatum in a sleeveless undershirt, shooting at stuff. And by that standard this movie is a success. Director Emmerich has made total nonsense-plus-pyrotechnics his artistic medium, his thing, his marble from which he carves his "David" (you know, if David had two large automatic weapons and could pause for effect before saying "let's go take back your house").
The movie (or perhaps Emmerich) is not completely unaware of its absurdity. As with 2012 (Emmerich's previous blow-stuff-up movie), the movie seems to be having fun with its goofier plot points and sillier conceits. Tatum and Foxx are a perfect pairing for this kind of setup. Both are credible action stars but both are also able to be funny without being jokey and put little burst of humor into their moments of tough-guy-ness.
At almost two and a half hours, White House Down is probably 40 minutes longer than it needs to be and its score is yet another argument for why some international body, perhaps the UN, should work to reach some kind of detente in this arms race of bombastic scores. But if you need to celebrate Independence Day with something that offers the same giddy dumbness, the same epic action as Independence Day, White House Down is your movie. B-
Rated PG-13 for prolonged sequences of action and violence including some intense gunfire and explosions, some language and a brief sexual image. Directed by Roland Emmerich and written by James Vanderbilt, White House Down is two hours and 17 minutes long and is distributed by Sony Pictures.