Forever etching his name on the 'blacklist' of the highest office in Washington, Roland Emmerich is back at destroying the official residence of the President of the United States. Alas, Emmerich has been beaten at his own game, his White House under siege premise coming less than six months after the similarly-themed 'Olympus Has Fallen'. Besides cast and character, both are essentially variations of the same movie - or to sum it up succinctly, 'Die Hard' on 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. And having lost the novelty factor to 'Olympus', what matters is only whether it is in fact a better movie than its predecessor, to which our answer is unfortunately a resounding no.
Yes, despite a bigger budget and perhaps more bankable lead stars (Channing Tatum and Jamie Foxx are still surer box-office bets than Gerard Butler going by their respective track records), 'White House Down' is a disappointing letdown. To be fair, that ain't the fault of Tatum and Foxx, both of whom are the saving graces of an otherwise embarrassing exercise in hokum; instead, Emmerich and his screenwriter James Vanderbilt are squarely to blame here, the latter for throwing any semblance of logic out the window and the former for trying too hard to emulate Michael Bay.
Whereas 'Olympus' had the real-life threat of the North Koreans to lend some authenticity, Vanderbilt engenders none with his far-fetched premise of the President's Head of Secret Service, Walker (James Woods), recruiting a hodgepodge bunch of right-wing ex-military fundamentalists to kidnap the President and exploit his nuclear arsenal so as to wipe out America's enemies in the Middle East (here's looking at you, Teheran) off the map. The trigger for that? A G8 speech where current President, James Sawyer (Foxx), essentially tells the world that the U.S. will be pursuing peace diplomacy by taking the first step to lay down its weapons.
Despite a backstory that tries to explain Walker's motivations, there is little coherence to just how the Head of the President's Secret Service detail would be so compelled to attempt such an act of treason, let alone assemble a ragtag team of militarists with past criminal records and sneak them into the White House to aid his 'noble' cause. Ditto for the likelihood that a hacker, however brilliant he might be, could simply run a programme to crack the NSA's firewalls without even so much as alerting anyone else in the process - and may we add thereby precipitating a thoroughly laughable chain of swearing-ins that goes from the Vice-President to the Speaker of Parliament Raphelson (Richard Jenkins). If you thought 'Olympus' was just implausible, then 'White House Down' pretty much operates on its own system of reasoning.
Further turning the proceedings to farce is the buddy team of aspiring Secret Service agent John Cale (Tatum) and President Sawyer. A classic case of the right guy in the wrong place at the wrong time, Cale finds himself rising to the call of duty when the terrorists launch their attack just as he and his daughter Emily (Joey King) are on tour in the White House. But instead of repeating the formula of one man saving the day (or the President for that matter), Vanderbilt introduces a twist to the dynamics between Cale and Sawyer by turning them into partners - though how much it really does veer from the earlier cliché is questionable.
Nonetheless, Tatum and Foxx make a pleasantly amusing pair and are - truth be told - the best things that the movie has going for it. But the immediate trade-off of injecting comedy into a premise that intuitively demands a certain degree of solemnity is that you cannot quite take anything else that happens in it seriously afterwards. Nowhere is this more evident than in an utterly ludicrous sequence where Cale and Sawyer are in the President's limousine driving round and round the fountain in the middle of the White House lawn while being chased by the bad guys, the sheer stupidity of it matched by the fact that Sawyer is in the meantime figuring out how to assemble a mini rocket launcher in the back seat.
Whereas 'Olympus' kept its pacing taut by emphasising the gravity of the threat facing the nation, there is nary a frisson of tension even as Walker comes dangerously close to acquiring the President's nuclear commandership. Simply put, the self-aware humour that is the only reason why the movie remains watchable sits at odds with the self-serious tone in the last third of the film, and no number of fighter planes nor surface-to-air missiles can regain the credibility of its premise.
It doesn't help that the action, which consists largely of close combat fights, is surprisingly lacklustre, choreographed with neither finesse nor technique to distinguish one from the other. Wherever Emmerich gets the opportunity in the screenplay to stage the action against a wider canvas, he squanders that chance to make it count, the surfeit of CGI and excess making for a toxic combination that renders what is shown little more than an afterthought. Indeed, a similar sequence as that in 'Olympus' where the Special Forces attempt to land on the roof of the White House from helicopters unfolds with so little excitement that it might as well have been cut out altogether.
Therein lies perhaps the biggest problem with 'White House Down' - even as a summer popcorn flick, it just isn't thrilling enough. Emmerich tries to keep every frame busy - hence the countless number of times Tatum leaps over couches or slides over tables - but the action is just loud, dumb and plain boring. Only the humour between Tatum and Foxx manages to be entertaining, though it's hard not to regard the movie as farce afterwards. Call us biased, but we like our White House under siege thrillers to be hard-hitting, intense and gripping, none of which can be used to describe 'White House Down'.
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