Stars: Channing Tatum, Jamie Foxx, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Jason Clarke, Richard Jenkins, Joey King, James Woods | Written by James Vanderbilt | Directed by Roland Emmerich
Once there was Tombstone and Wyatt Earp, then there was Armageddon and Deep Impact, and last year we had the dueling Snow White films with Mirror Mirror and Snow White and the Huntsmen. It is the mirror movie syndrome when two films released relatively close to one another share a very similar theme or plot device. This year’s entry into that phenomenon is the case of the sparring White House invasion films with Olympus has Fallen and Roland Emmerich’s White House Down. These two films share many similar qualities, but tonally they differ a great deal. Olympus has Fallen is a rather hardnosed action thriller. White House Down on the other hand, takes things a tad less seriously. It is much more Lethal Weapon than Rambo. Within all the explosions, terroristic threats, and hostage taking is a barrage of fish out of water antics, one-liners, and purposely outlandish moments. There is certainly something to appreciate with this throwback method as it encapsulates that shameless fun so many of today’s blockbusters lack. That fun can only take White House Down so far as it becomes overbearing with its outright ridiculous plot and never ending assault of cheesiness.
Roland Emmerich has made a career out of destroying the world. Films like 2012 and Independence Day have an epic scale of international destruction, and there is a certain amount of craftsmanship in how he designs his large scale set pieces. They tend to take the theme park qualities of Back to the Future and Jurassic Park and amp them up to preposterous levels. The action in White House Down is subdued by comparison. Sure we are still able to see an infamous monument get destroyed, but the majority of the action is reserved to old fashioned hand to hand combat and gun battles. Similar to Olympus has Fallen it harkens back to classic 80’s style action. This action is competently handled. It is clear, crisp, and easy to follow. There is just little to be captivated by. Minus a car chase on the front lawn of the White House there isn’t much that stands out. It can barely step out of the shadow of movies that came out a few months ago—let alone classic genre films it so obviously emulates.
One particular area where the throwback feel is at its strongest is the relationship between Channing Tatum and Jamie Fox. Tatum plays John Cale a Capital policeman looking to break into the Secret Service. He is an army veteran who has never been able to get his life completely together. His marriage did not work out and now he is finding it difficult to connect with his daughter. Tatum does work as this charming hero who has yet to really grow up. He has the physicality to pull off the action sequences, but he is not oozing masculinity like Stallone or Schwarzenegger. There is more of comedic edge to his movie star swagger.
Things begin to pick up for Cale when he is given an opportunity to interview for the President’s Secret Service. He takes his daughter along, who is in love with all things politics, thinking it will help him score some major points. Unbeknownst to him a malicious takedown of the US government is about to take place. The US Capital building is bombed and a group of mercenaries invade the White House. Nearly all the Secret Service is taken out leaving Cale as the sole person who can save the President along with his own daughter from this onslaught of madmen.
Playing the part of that President is Jamie Foxx. By now with his roles in Ray and Django Unchained Foxx has proven he is a legitimate actor, which is why this failing performance comes as such of a surprise. Here he never comes off as presidential. His performance is an obvious impersonation of Barack Obama down to the look of his wife and kids. This allows the more comedic moments to work, but when he attempts to be earnest it falls utterly flat. It is akin to watching a Saturday Night Live character try to convey actual human emotion. There is never a reason to take him seriously. Foxx does share a strong chemistry with Channing Tatum. They have a great back and forth with one another as they play up this updated version of the Odd Couple. It wasn’t to the level of a Riggs and Murtaugh, but it also wasn’t that far off either. Whenever they were on screen the movie tended to be working. Whenever they were off it was a lot less successful.
One particular aspect the film struggled with was establishing a coherent tone. At times there was no desire to be taken seriously. At other times it will delve into some rather grave subject matter. I am a firm believer that you can find comedy in anything if you handle it correctly. This is an example of how not to make light of heavy situations. The dome of the US Capital eerily crumbling like the Twin Towers felt out of place when compared to the rest of the movie. Nearly every character felt like they were in a different film. There would be a cartoonish hijacker one moment then it would cut to Maggie Gyllenhaal, who would spew lines as if she was seconds away from giving her Oscar speech. Foxx and Tatum’s antics as well did not necessarily flow with the more serious situations that were placed around them. It was light comedy in a dark situation, which can be done right—see Dr. Stangelove. Here it was just big jumble of missed opportunity.
Where the film really goes off the rails is the preposterous plot. Roland Emmerich is not a director known for his realism, but at least something like using a laptop to completely overpower an advanced alien race has a purpose. In White House Down many of the plot twists did nothing but needlessly over complicate matters. When the true reason for this entire coup d’état is revealed you cannot help but question your own sanity. The worst part is the convoluted plot takes away from what actually works with the movie. Every time the excitement grips you the pacing will halt to explain some new plot device that would only provide more plot holes to be dug. Bottom-line, White House Down is all premise with little punch.
White House Down is out now in the US, the film hits UK cinemas on September 6th.