Review: ‘White House Down’ Is Roland Emmerich’s Gun-Blazing Return to Form

By  · Published on June 27th, 2013

No, Roland Emmerich doesn’t blow up the White House (again) in his latest patriotic pulse-pounder, but that doesn’t mean that he doesn’t put a really hurting on America’s presidential palace. After all, the director’s newest film is called White House Down, and it centers on something that seems to have captured Emmerich’s attention back since his opus, Independence Day – namely, what it means to wreak havoc on historical real estate in the middle of national crisis. Instead of focusing on a worldwide catastrophe for his latest actioner, Emmerich has scaled back (well, as much as Emmerich can scale back) and focused his film on a set of coordinated attacks that target the heart of America’s government by infiltrating the White House and going after the president himself.

Jamie Foxx leads the cast as President James Sawyer, the leader of the free world (and not exactly President Barack Obama, but clearly a man influenced by him) and a guy who has just decreed that all American troops are to be pulled out of the Middle East immediately and finally. Clearly, Sawyer’s decision has pissed off a lot of people – including his sulky head of the Secret Service (James Woods), the military-industrial complex, and pretty much every Republican in existence. Sawyer may be popular with the people, but he’s not so popular in DC. Meanwhile (there’s nothing Emmerich loves more than a great “meanwhile!”), Channing Tatum’s John Cale is toughing it out in his own way. A police officer who is trying make good when it comes to his smarty-pants daughter (Joey King), his disappointed ex-wife (Rachelle Lefevre), and a ton of military training that seems to be wasted in his current position, Cale is going out for a big job with (you guessed it!) the Secret Service. Intent on impressing King’s Emily, a precocious pre-teen with her own political blog and YouTube page, Cale brings her along to the White House for his interview.

It should go without saying that Cale biffs his interview, and for a number of highly unfortunate reasons. He doesn’t play well with others. He’s not working to his potential. He gets interviewed by an apparently angry ex-girlfriend (Maggie Gyllenhaal). Will anything go his way? Well, no. And that’s before a paramilitary force takes over the White House while the family Cale is trying to loosen up with a funtime tour of the place. What a day! Through a number of convoluted plot machinations best left to the film itself, Cale and Sawyer are thrown together, and the pair are tasked with getting out of the shot-to-hell nightmare factory that is the White House and/or saving the world.

Penned by James Vanderbilt (who will next help Emmerich script the first of two planned Independence Day sequels and who has previously written films like The Rundown, Zodiac, and The Losers), the script is remarkably well-balanced amongst its characters, a trait that (pun fully intended) makes it look good on paper but which bogs it down in cinematic practice. While telling a story from multiple vantage points certainly sounds like a good and different way to approach such a popcorn-y blockbuster, it ultimately robs the film of its best asset – the unexpectedly delightful duo that is Tatum and Foxx.

The pair displays an undeniable comedic chemistry and timing that make their every scene together the absolute highlight of the film. The high of seeing these two essentially live out their own buddy cop film is almost immediately diffused by the film’s constant need to check in with what’s going on with Gyllenhaal’s Agent Finnerty, the kid, even the terrorists (though the terrorists are led by Jason Clarke, snarling and hamming it up to great amusement). In short – who the hell cares what anyone else is doing when we could just be watching more of Tatum and Foxx goofing it up on screen? No one. The answer is no one. Even if you’re not convinced of just how inspired their pairing is through the film’s first and second acts, wait until they embark on an extended action sequence that utterly destroys the White House lawn in every way possible. Just wait for it. It’s so worth it.

While White House Down is exactly the type of shoot-em-up oh-wow-America-kicks-ass action outing we’ve come to expect from Emmerich, it also features the other thing that the director is good at it (and which everyone forgets about) – building actual emotional stakes into the lives of his characters. Yes, White House Down is totally bonkers and filled with all sorts of completely insane action sequences, but it also makes its audience care about emotional outcomes for its myriad characters. It works doubly so because of this – it’s fun to see Tatum and Foxx fire rocket launchers and make jokes about sneakers, but it’s also compelling to care about their kids and their ladies and keeping all those people safe.

The Upside: Tatum and Foxx’s comedic chemistry; amusing and pulse-pounding action sequences; surprisingly emotional stakes.

The Downside: Packed with obvious twists; doesn’t spend enough time with Tatum and Foxx; a spirit-dampening lull between the first and second acts.

On the Side: The film’s one blatant Independence Day joke came care of an ad-lib by co-star Nicolas Wright, who plays a very funny White House guide.

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