White House Down
Director(s): Roland Emmerich
Writer(s): James Vanderbilt
Reviewed by: Ian Evans on
Release Date(s)Jun 28, 2013 - Wide
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It’s hot and humid in Toronto at the end of June. The type of weather where movie houses can hang out signs saying “Come for the movies. Stay for the air conditioning.” At this time of the year, with Canada Day and July 4th just around the corner, the studios like to release popcorn movies. Roland Emmerich’s White House Down is an extra large bag of popcorn, dripping with copious amounts of butter and for the sweet and salty, mixed in with a few M&M’s. Did I have to check my brain in at the door. Yes. Did I have fun? Hell, yeah. White House Down is not a political science treatise backed with the kind of geopolitical insight you’d find on CNN’s Fareed Zakaria GPS. It’s a flash-bang action pic with villains of comic proportions.
Channing Tatum plays John Cale, an Army vet who is now on the protective detail of the Speaker of the House (Richard Jenkins), a Republican whose biggest concern appears to be the squirrels in his bird feeder. Cale longs to be in the Secret Service, partially due to his sense of patriotic duty, but also to win back the affections of his 11-year-old daughter Emily (Joey King), a politically-crazed girl who has presidential Google Alerts on her phone and lives with her mother.
The president she’s fixated on is James Sawyer (Jamie Foxx) a first-term president who’s about to upset the military-industrial complex by announcing he’s withdrawing all troops from the Middle East and spending the money on things like health and education for the region. On the day he announces this, Cale and daughter arrive at the White House for Cale’s Secret Service interview, conducted by an old friend, Special Agent Finnerty (Maggie Gyllenhaal). The interview doesn’t go well — among other things Cale has the street but not the book smarts — and as Cale takes his daughter on a tour, the White House gets seized by mercenaries. The soon-to-be-retiring head of the President’s security detail, Martin Walker (James Woods), rushes “the package” towards a bunker as the White House falls around them. Suddenly, Cale is going to get a live audition for the role he so wants. Can Cale save both the President of the United States and his relationship with his daughter?
You might think the exploding Capitol Dome is the first victim in this film, but the real body count starts with reality. Apparently, the most heavily-protected home in the world can be breached by roughly eight guys who don’t even bring weapons with them but pick them up along the way. They include Zero Dark Thirty’s Jason Clarke as the mercenary leader whose every frustrated utterance seems to be henchman performance reviews like “And this time finish the job!”, It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia’s Jimmi Simpson as a quirky hacker, and Kevin Rankin, a good ol’ boy killer who just happens to be a fan of the Fox News-esque anchor among the hostages.
Channing Tatum’s John Cale is a regular guy, okay a regular guy who gets the ladies swooning with his pecs, but the type of regular guy we find in action movies. You know, the guys who can save the world while the highly-trained ones are picked off so easily the mercenaries probably get handed a stuffed toy by a carny afterwards. Tatum is a rapidly rising star and though he’s great at crashing through windows in a tank top, he also has acting chops and likeability. Can we buy shares in his career? Jamie Foxx is strong as the thoughtful POTUS who has to learn to kick a little ass along the way. He supports Tatum’s performance perfectly and their chemistry is such that if they don’t start a “D.C. in Distress” franchise, filmmakers should find other ways for the pair to blow things up again. Joey King has both the smarts and the strength to be a thorn in the side of the mercenaries and though Gyllenhaal plays a tireless Secret Service agent, she spends most of her time on the phone with Cale from the safety of a command center, like an end-of-the-world customer service rep. Her character has backbone, so it would have been nice to have seen her fire off a few rounds, but most of the Secret Service scenery gets to be chewed by James Woods, whose larger-than-life character is the right size for the over-the-top action. Extra points have to go to Nicolas Wright as the world’s greatest tour guide.
There are plenty of CG effects of Washington under attack and the stuntmen in this film earned their overtime. You don’t really come to a film like this for Aaron Sorkin-esque dialogue, and James Vanderbilt’s script can sometimes range from expository clunkers like “Have you heard of the military-industrial complex?” to Die Hard-wannabes like “You heard the man (cocks shotgun) the tour is over. There’s plenty of humour in the script, as well as the heartwarming touches that always sit on the edge of these action films.
So, yes, White House Down can be cheesy at times, but it’s cheesy like a good All-American burger.
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