'White House Down' is slapstick action
By Glenn Kenny, Special to MSN Movies
An action blockbuster that seems perversely proud of its chest-beating brain-deadness, "White House Down" is, at certain moments, a good time in spite of itself. I, for one, was certainly glad when it was over. Others will no doubt enjoy the action stuff, the interactions between its two heroes and the adorable sentimental flag-waving triumphalism. Which is all good, I guess. Anybody who falls for any of the movie's ostensible "plot twists," though, are not people I would want to see operating heavy machinery.
As you may have gleaned from the ads, the movie -- like last spring's rather more po-faced and opportunistic (but, believe it or not, also more plausible, although not by much) "Olympus Has Fallen" -- concerns a plot by baddies to create international crisis by occupying the titular White House and compromising the president and stuff. And there's only one man standing in the way of the terrorists, a low-level security functionary named, no joke, John Cale, played by studly Channing Tatum, who just happens to be at the White House the day of the attack, on a job interview. You know how this sort of thing goes in these kinds of movies: His interviewer is a top Secret Service op (played by Maggie Gyllenhaal) who herself just happens to have been a college sweetie of Cale's and who enumerates his various shortcomings in a brisk exchange. Cale, as it happens, is big on bravado but lame on follow-through. This sort of, um, "foreshadowing" indicates to the audience that Cale will soon be asked to prove his mettle. Soon Cale gets the chance, as the pres residence is besieged, and Cale is caught in the crossfire but manages to pluck President Brian Eno (not really his name) from his would-be kidnappers.
President Lou Reed (not really the character's name) happens to be African-American and is played by Jamie Foxx, and, being president and all, isn't ready for action herodom, but John Cale can teach him some things. So the movie goes on, pretty much forever it seems, with the two good guys confronting motley bad guys who are holding both weapons and hostages. While many of these folks are supposedly white supremacists, the multiple-tattooed and eccentrically groomed fellows look as if they were shipped in straight from hipster conclave Williamsburg. When Hollywood gets typing wrong, it tends to do so in pretty funny ways, as you may have noticed.
As Foxx and Tatum try to take back the actual government of the U.S., the baddies, including a computer hacker in the basement and a gruff traitor running the show on the second or third floor (is it a spoiler to reveal that this character is played by James Woods?), up the ante to the extent that, whaddya know, World War III could break out at any minute. The movie concludes with a series of countdowns that could lead to certain doom for the capital, as well as big problems for Cale's moppety daughter, who is one of the White House hostages. So, like "World War Z," the movie gets to truck in contemporary Hollywood's favorite sentiment that it doesn't actually believe, the "nothing is more important than family" line. Oy. Because the movie takes the physical constraints of the "White House under siege" premise very seriously, it features a car chase in which a slew of SUVs circle the lawn fountain of the location at high speeds. At this and other moments the movie devolves, or maybe evolves, into sheer slapstick, and if director Roland Emmerich doesn't get his own joke, stars Tatum and Foxx are content to continue acting as if they're in "Die Hard," and extremely thrilled about it. Their chemistry and interplay is what makes the movie tolerable and on occasion enjoyable. (This in spite of the fact that Foxx, as charming as he can be, makes a rather improbable world leader.) That feature aside, my recommendation with respect to this movie would be, if you feel you have to see it, make sure to do so in a theater where you know the air-conditioning is good.
Glenn Kenny is chief film critic for MSN Movies. He was the chief film critic for Premiere magazine from 1998 to 2007. He contributes to various publications and websites, and blogs at http://somecamerunning.typepad.com. He lives in Brooklyn.