It’s impossible to reflect on “White House Down” without mentioning “Olympus Has Fallen”, the similarly (and by similarly, I mean almost identically) themed action movie from earlier this year. However, where I came out of “Olympus Has Fallen” thinking, ‘Wow – that’s the film “Die Hard 4.0” should have been!’, I came out of this thinking: ‘Um, that’s the film “Die Hard 4.0” was.’ Actually, that’s a bit unfair to “Die Hard 4.0”.
In fact, so closely does “White House Down” mimic the story beats of its predecessor that it feels more like the Asylum mockbuster version of “Olympus Has Fallen” airing as a SyFy Original movie than a major studio motion picture costing more than twice as much. This is a flaccid, uninspired and muddled film, completely unsure if it’s meant to be a taught, action-packed siege movie, a political thriller, a mismatched buddy movie or a global disaster epic. It fails to achieve any of these, but I suppose it comes closest to ticking the mismatched buddy movie box.
‘Starring Channing Tatum’ should have been warning enough but ‘Executive Produced by Channing Tatum’ really should have set my alarm bells ringing. He is totally out of his depth here as John Cayle, the lone action hero against insurmountable odds and at no point does he convince us that he can handle the situation, lurching from one clumsy action scene to another. At a bloated 2 hours 11 minutes, you get the sense that pretty much any other action star would have had this wrapped up in about 90 minutes, 1hr40 tops.
Jamie Foxx, channelling his very best “Lethal Weapon”-era Danny Glover, does the best he can in the role of President James Sawyer, but the character is so clichéd and poorly written that sometimes all he can do is put a brave face on it, deliver the vaguely racist dialogue and remember that he was in a much, much better film earlier this year. James Woods is on autopilot as the retiring Head of the Secret Service while the assorted terrorists, led by Jason Clarke (“Zero Dark Thirty”) as Stenz are an unappealing bunch of one-note thugs straight from central casting’s stereotype list.
By contrast, Maggie Gyllenhaal’s Deputy Head of Presidential Security Carol Finnerty is one of the more interesting and underused characters in the film. Stuck on the side-lines in the Pentagon, she’s reduced to little more than a telephone operator (hey, she’s this film’s Uhura!) relaying nonsensically macho statements between a whiny Channing Tatum and a cadaverous, oddly stilted turn by Lance Reddick as General Caulfield, Vice Chairman Of The Joint Chiefs Of Staff. Joining Gyllenhaal in the very short list of characters that you want to spend time with are Joey King, who is great as Emily Cayle, John’s estranged daughter and Nicholas Wright as Donnie the White House Tour Guide/ Comic Relief CharacterTM. I really wish the film had been about those three, with the clever teenager and the plucky tour guide saving the day under the remote guidance of the shrewd Secret Service Agent Carol Finnerty. I would have enjoyed that movie!
Moreso than “Olympus Has Fallen”, the makers of “White House Down” clearly wanted this to be Die Hard on Pennsylvania Avenue but they completely miss the mark. Imitation may be the sincerest form of flattery but this is downright insulting. In “Die Hard”, the terrorism-as-a-decoy-for-a-heist plot twist was fresh, brilliant and unexpected. By the time “Die Hard With A Vengeance” came out, it had already been repeated so often that the film slyly subverts the twist by making McClane guess it early but have trouble convincing everyone else. Here, the heist aspect of the story is a weird dead-end plot thread that serves no purpose.
From the start, the film sets up a gratingly naïve geo-political world view as its springboard for a misjudged and unfocussed critique of the ill-defined “military/ industrial complex”. The identity, motivation and plans of the invading terrorists are confusing, poorly articulated and contradictory, undercutting any real sense of threat. This lazy approach to the plotting reaches its pinnacle in the bizarre performance of Jimmi Simpson as computer hacker (hacker? How 90’s!) Skip Tyler who interacts with the plot and the other characters so infrequently that he might as well have been edited in from another (even worse) movie.
What entertainment value there is in “White House Down” is largely inadvertent and of the eye-rolling or sniggering variety. I actually tutted out loud at one point. However, the film does get a bonus point for being right-on-the-money topical for its portrayal of how the US Government can tie itself in constitutional knots at the worst possible times. Indeed, this film – an action film, remember – spends a good deal of its time focussing on the constitutional shenanigans which see not one but two caretaker presidents sworn in while various agencies squabble over jurisdiction and ultimately it’s all moot anyway because at a crucial moment, the military chain of command collapses at the slightest provocation.
Director Roland Emmerich is out of his epic disaster comfort zone here and it shows. The pacing is dreadful and the first act of the film is largely a by-the-numbers introduction to the different sets of characters, a well-worn trope in disaster movies such as “2012” and “Independence Day” but in this kind of film it gives the whole affair a sluggish feel that it never quite shakes off. The action scenes are badly staged and so choppily edited they end up being frustrating rather than exciting to watch. A particular surprise, given Emmerich’s previous work, is the poor quality of the CGI effects here, especially in the early scenes of Washington. The feeble script even tries its hand at clever foreshadowing with all the subtlety of the clues on “Through The Keyhole” and I guarantee you will be able to watch the first forty-five minutes and make a list of fives things which will come into play (and how they will be used) in the film’s finale. Try it, it’ll be fun, like bingo. More fun than the movie, anyway. We’ll call it “White House Eyes Down” or “White Full House Down”.