White House Down
by M. Faust
I’ll bet it was one of the shortest pitches ever made to a studio executive: “Die Hard at the White House.” Of course, that pitch would have been made months before the most recent entry in that Bruce Willis series eroded a big new chunk out of audience fondness for that particular franchise. But if you can remember back to those halcyon days of 1988 and how much fun it was watching working class cop John McClane battle terrorists in a Los Angeles skyscraper, doesn’t it make you wish Hollywood could still turn out action epics that were so breezily entertaining?
Well, you’re in luck. White House Down is a welcome antidote to the seemingly endless line of over-amped, largely dour superhero special effects extravaganzas that have been beating audiences to a pulp in the warm months. That’s not to say that it doesn’t have its share of stuff blowing up, gun fights, rocket fights and vehicular mayhem—it’s directed, after all, by Roland Emmerich, whose career swung into high gear when he blew up the White House in 1996’s Independence Day (duly recounted her by a tour guide). Having made the ultimate catastrophe movie with 2012, he’s backed off of the special effects (destroying the entire planet in loving detail is hard to top), and the result is easily the most enjoyable no-brainer movie of the summer thus far.
Channing Tatum stars as John Cale, three-time Afghanistan vet and would-be Secret Service agent whose application is turned down by an old friend (Maggie Gyllenhaal) who feels he’s not dependable. (The name is a tip of the hat to Die Hard’s John McClane, unless someone involved is a really big Velvet Underground fan.) He’s having no more success connecting with his eleven year old daughter, who has drifted away from him since his divorce. When a tour of the White House puts him into a position to protect the president (Jamie Foxx) from invading terrorists, it’s not that Cale is thinking about how much this opportunity will help every facet of his life. But we are.
Should you be able to resist getting caught up in the breathless swirl of events here, which involve enough other characters so that the appealing but limited Tatum doesn’t have to carry more of the film than he can manage, you might amuse yourself by trying to guess how much of the movie is tongue in cheek. Emmerich and scripter James Vanderbilt have enough stuff that’s obviously comical (gotta love Donnie the tour guide) that the film isn’t obviously a parody. I think they’re having fun with the clichés of the genre, though not so much to spoil the propulsive pleasures onscreen.
To be honest, the last 15 minutes or so are a letdown. The final revelation of the plot (I won’t tell you who the main bad guy is, but anyone old enough to remember Nixon’s White House Chief of Staff H. R. Haldeman will spot him the first time he appears) is neither satisfying nor sensible. And the little lagniappe after it (“But wait—there’s another bad guy in our midst!”) is even worse. It’s a tribute to how well crafted this is that the ending doesn’t ruin what has otherwise been exactly what millions of people crave from Hollywood in the summertime.
Watch the trailer for White House Down
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