Director: Roland Emmerich
Starring: Channing Tatum, Jamie Foxx, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Joey King, James Woods, Jason Clarke, Richard Jenkins, Lance Reddick
The trend of Hollywood putting out similarly themed big-budget films in the same year is nothing new. They did it with Armageddon and Deep Impact, Dante’s Peak and Volcano, and even the recent comedy This Is The End will have a companion film with the much lower profile release, Raturepalooza (both of which feature Craig Robinson). This trend continues with the latest Roland Emmerich picture, White House Down, following the spring release of the Antoine Fuqua-directed Olympus Has Fallen. This time around, Capital Police officer John Cale, played by Channing Tatum, is interviewing for the Secret Service, while taking his daughter on a tour of the White House. When the historic building is attacked, and the two are separated, Cale will have to fight a team of mercenaries to rescue not only her, but also President James Sawyer, played by Jamie Foxx.
Even without the disadvantage of being released after Olympus Has Fallen, White House Down suffers from a wide variety of problems from its story, to the action and effects, and its characters. The film definitely wants to tip its hat to Die Hard, but it overplays its hand so to the point that it never feels like its own film. Beyond the whole “wrong place at the wrong time” scenario Cale finds himself in, the level of estrangement between him and his daughter perfectly mirrors the relationship between John McClane and his wife in Die hard, and even elements of the villains’ plans are lifted wholesale from the Bruce Willis action film. Factor in Olympus Has Fallen, and one will notice a staggering number of similarities between the two films, beyond the basic set up, in terms of key plot points, characters, and even one major plot twist.
White House Down certainly has no shortage of action, but very little of it is shot in such a way as to engage the audience. There are a handful of decent shootouts and hand-to-hand fight scenes, especially between Tatum’s John Cale, and the leader of the team that attacks the White House, played by Jason Clarke. For the most part, however, much of the action is betrayed by poor editing choices that undersell the impact of that action in a number of scenes.
The film also suffers from some underwhelming special effects, which is surprising for a Roland Emmerich film. There are more than a few poorly-rendered CG explosions, and an aerial sequence involving a trio of blackhawk helicopters flying low through the streets of Washington, DC that is especially bad. Another distracting element is that almost every outdoor scene looked as if it was filmed on a huge indoor set, with poor lighting and some rather unconvincing blue screen compositing.
When the action and effects fall short, one would hope the characters could make up for things, but even in that regard, White House Down struggles to deliver the goods. Some of it is due to a handful of actors sleepwalking through their roles, like Richard Jenkins as the Speaker of the House, Maggie Gyllenhaal as Secret Service agent Carol Finnerty, and Lance Reddick as General Caufield. For the most part, though, the blame falls on James Vanderbilt’s ham-fisted screenplay. Saddled with every possible hard-luck everyman action hero cliche known to man, Channing Tatum never gets a chance to be a real character. Meanwhile, Jamie Foxx has to suffer the indignity of being a ridiculously transparent Barack Obama analog, with the way he speaks in certain scenes, his embracing of social media, and an entire subplot revolving around pulling military forces out of the Middle East. They even manage to squeeze in a joke about him trying to quit smoking. The two do give it their best effort once they have to team up against the mercenaries, and there are more than a few moments in the film where their interactions are fun to watch. But then we have Joey King as Emily Cale. Kids in action movies are usually looked upon as an Achilles heel, and White House Down is no different. While I am sure the filmmakers believed it would be great to show her as a resourceful child with a profound love of history and politics, her character is eventually forced into certain aspects of the story in the most contrived way possible.
One of the few bright spots in the cast comes in the form of James Woods as Secret Service Chief, Martin Walker. Despite a few weak spots in the character, it is amazing to watch Woods work and do everything he can to elevate the material. Few actors can bring the intensity to a scene the way he can, but there are also some nice moments of humor between him and other characters in the film. Jason Clarke also provides a strong performance as Stenz, appropriately ruthless yet fiercely loyal to the men in his command, even showing remorse when one of them is killed.
As a director, Roland Emmerich have never been credited with crafting films with an overabundance of intelligence, and White House Down will never be mistaken for being a particularly smart film. The story is weighed down with one tired action movie cliche after the other, hackneyed dialogue, and more than a few needless plot twists. Oh well, Olympus Has Fallen should be out on blu-ray any day now!