I’m beginning to think that I have a think for watching the White House get trashed. It’s America’s house, I’m American, so maybe I should feel a little bit bad about seeing 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue get riddled with bullets, blown up with bombs, overtaken by terrorists, and generally turned into a flaming shell of a once-glorious building. It seems that Roland Emmerich shares my love of destroying American monuments though, because he does it again in his inimitable style in White House Down.
Roland dips into his full bag of action movie tricks for White House Down, a movie in which the White House is taken over by a group of military operatives, right-wing terrorists, computer hackers, and other people with axes to grind against the administration of President Sawyer (Jamie Foxx). The terrorists strike hard and quickly, mopping up the security forces and taking over the building with skillful precision. The only person standing in their way is Capitol Police officer John Cale (Channing Tatum), who was unlucky enough to be interviewing for a Secret Service job in the building with his daughter Emily (Joey King) at his side.
What follows is a slam-bang action flick that stands up surprisingly well when compared against 2013’s other White House terrorism flick, Olympus Has Fallen. They’re two different films in tone and execution, but both are very good examples of action movies. Olympus is darker and bloodier; White House Down is a thrill-ride PG-13 flick with minimal blood yet maximum body count. Every part of the White House is used to great effect, from shoot-outs in the Oval Office to knife-fights in the stairwell and tons of crawling in and out of tunnels, elevator shafts, and into the basement.
Somehow Roland Emmerich even manages to get a car chase into play, despite not being able to leave the White House grounds. Crucially, Emmerich doesn’t go in for the obnoxious hand-held camera shakiness and power zooming that’s so popular in action movies these days. He keeps his camera back, leaves the screen wide, and makes great use of the big screen with his framing and shooting method. It’s nice to see people get shot without getting motion sickness.
It’s all very impressive, a surprising amount of fun, and exactly the right tone for a summer blockbuster. While writer James Vanderbilt isn’t going to win any awards for the script, it’s funny enough to do the job while keeping the film moving at a swift pace with just enough time to slow down and breathe before the next tense search mission, gun battle, or fist fight. The film is an impressive 131 minutes, but it moves very fast and, for the most part, doesn’t lose its way or take itself too seriously. It’s an amiable bit of goofy summer shoot’em up that has a pretty stellar cast at its disposal and good comic chops.
Jamie Foxx has had his ups and downs since winning the Oscar, but taking on the role of the President Obama doppelganger isn’t one. Foxx isn’t a physical specimen, though he is in good shape, and it’s clear he’s paid a lot of attention to Obama since he became president, because his President Sawyer has a lot in common with him. Foxx is appropriately amusing in his role, much better as a nerd in over his head in action scenes than he has any right to be. Channing Tatum does the heavy lifting in the action scenes, clad in either a dapper suit or combat rig, while being perfectly passable in his scenes with his daughter. Rounding out the support crew are a very strong James Woods, Jason Clarke (better here than in The Great Gatsby by far), and a mostly-neglected Maggie Gyllenhaal. Foxx and Tatum have great chemistry together, and their pairing really powers the film.
White House Down shouldn’t be as good as it is, but here we are. It’s a taste of classic chaos from one of the best directors still working exclusively in the action movie genre. For all his flaws (which are myriad), Roland Emmerich is still capable of putting out a big dumb fun summer flick with style to spare. Bring extra popcorn and check your brain at the door.
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