This summer has had some hits, but it will most likely be remembered for a string of high-profile box office bombs featuring highly-paid stars who usually deliver better films and better box-office. The string of bombs continues with “White House Down”, the latest Roland Emmerich (“Independence Day”, “2012”) film starring Channing Tatum as Capitol policeman John Cale and Jamie Foxx as President Sawyer.
Emmerich has created an impressive number of very successful summer popcorn films; he isn’t trying to make Oscar winners, he is trying to elevate the B movie to an art form. With each new film, he combines wholly improbably plots with corny acting and over-the-top special effects. And it usually works; just the type of thing to spend a couple of hours escaping the hot summer sun while enjoying big handfuls of popcorn and soda.
But “White House Down” doesn’t. And there are a number of reasons why.
Some people are pointing to the March release of “Olympus Has Fallen”, a film with a very similar narrative. Every time two different studios decide to release similar films they always end up in a pissing match. Who will be first? Who gets the prime release date? Who has the bigger stars? But ultimately, none of this matters. “Olympus Has Fallen” doesn’t have the star power of the more recent Emmerich film. But “Fallen” had a lower budget and made money. The last time two studios competed, they jockeyed for position and “Mirror, Mirror”, a terrible film starring Julia Roberts, was released first and flopped badly. A few months later, “Snow White and the Huntsmen”, a marginally better film, made enough money to warrant a sequel. The lesson learned? Star power and release date don’t matter. If “White House Down” were a better film, no one would remember or care about “Olympus Has Fallen”.
The key mistake in “White House” is that everyone takes everything so seriously. It’s a preposterous story and there needs to be a certain amount of wink-wink. All of the best examples of this genre (“Die Hard”, “Lethal Weapon”) include humor, one-liners and funny tag lines.
Cale is desperate to become a member of the Secret Service and has an interview with Finnerty (Maggie Gyllenhaal), the newly appointed head of the President’s security detail. She is replacing Walker (James Woods) who is retiring. Cale brings his daughter Emily (Joey King) to the White House, because she is a history freak and he needs to earn some Daddy points. The interview doesn’t go well and Cale decides to put on a happy face for his daughter who urges him to join a tour of the White House. During this time, a group or mercenaries, led by Stenz (Jason Clarke, “The Great Gatsby”, “Lawless”) infiltrates the White House and begins to fire bullets, taking control. Cale realizes someone needs to protect the President and the two men quickly elude the terrorists. Little Emily, in the bathroom when the attack begins, can’t be discounted and will play a role in the drama.
During the course of the film, Cale will grow and become a hero. That is pretty much a given and something that should not come as a surprise to anyone. But Tatum who let’s face it is pretty but not a good actor, fails to give the character anything very deep. I know we are talking about a summer popcorn film, but when the lead character seems to be following instructions, moving from one point to the other with no obvious thought behind the movements, it is difficult to get behind the hero, to feel anything for him. Tatum always seems robotic during his dramatic moments, delivering his lines in a stiff, stilted manner.
Jamie Foxx is okay as President Sawyer. He has done better work in the past, but in “White House Down”, he manages to display a little of the charisma and bravado he is known for. These qualities make him believable, as much as any character in a film like this is believable, as the Commander In Chief. He also has one or two funny lines, the only funny lines, which help make the film a little more enjoyable.
As the drama continues, various government officials, led by Finnerty and Raphelson (Richard Jenkins) watch from a command center, trying to coordinate the rescue efforts and save the government. Moments on Air Force Two and surveillance video help them watch the drama unfold.
But it is up to Cale to save the President, his daughter and the country.
I think I was most disappointed by the lack of originality in just about every aspect of the narrative and filmmaking. It is an extremely predictable movie. Early on, you realize everything will be the opposite at the end of the film. When this realization occurs, nothing surprises you. Early on, Cale has an argument with his ex-wife (Rachel LeFevre, TV’s “Under the Dome”, “Twilight”) because he missed Emily’s school talent show. “What did she do?” “Flag twirling…” “That’s a talent?” Every ‘big moment’, a moment meant to deliver a lot of emotional or dramatic impact is telegraphed in a none too subtle fashion. This means that as soon as you hear this exchange about flag twirling, you know it will lead to a scene of the daughter using this very skill for a big dramatic payoff. However, even more shocking is how much of a blatant rip-off this moment is, borrowing everything practically verbatim from Michael Bay's "The Rock". Because it is such a blatant rip-off, any drama is robbed from the moment and it is ultimately a waste of time.
As soon as Cale and President Sawyer get together, they begin to reenact various parts of “Die Hard”. Unfortunately, the villains aren’t memorable and draw attention to the actions of the heroes, giving everything a “been there, done that” feeling. Jason Clarke, who was on the short-lived television series “The Chicago Code” is working his way up the Hollywood ladder, doing supporting roles in high-profile films. He played virtually the same character in both “The Great Gatsby” and “Lawless” – an adult male with no control over his destiny who becomes a victim of others, so his role here is a bit different. But he doesn’t stand out for any reason. One of his cohorts, a computer hacker played by Jimmi Simpson (TV’s “Breakout Kings”, “Abraham Lincoln Vampire Hunter”) chews up the scenery, but his purpose is never very clear.
James Woods plays Walker, the former head of the President’s security detail. He has an ax to grind and this propels a lot of the action in the film.
Roland Emmerich has created imaginative, albeit over-the-top films, which always serve to entertain the audience. But something went wrong with “White House Down” it doesn’t have the imagination, the power, the outlandish qualities of his other films. It is simply a forgettable film. And that is a disappointment.