It’s open season on 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue ― yet again ― in Roland Emmerich’s “White House Down,” a slick, high-concept actioner that has the unusual distinction of arriving several months after its bargain-basement knockoff, Antoine Fuqua’s “Olympus Has Fallen.” Itself owing much to such lone-man-of-action hallmarks as “Die Hard” and “Speed,” this welcome throwback to an earlier, more generously entertaining era of summer blockbusters delivers a wide array of close-quarters combat and large-scale destruction, all grounded in an immensely appealing star turn by Channing Tatum and ace support from imperiled POTUS Jamie Foxx. Though unlikely to rival career-best Emmerich grossers “Independence Day” and “2012” in the outer reaches of the box office stratosphere, pic should net a tidy profit for Sony, helping to salve the still-fresh wounds of “After Earth.”
Setting aside the question of whether the world really needed a second White House takeover movie, in terms of sheer craftsmanship and professionalism, “White House Down” is to “Olympus Has Fallen” what “Raiders of the Lost Ark” was to the 1985 Richard Chamberlain-Sharon Stone version of “King Solomon’s Mines.” Though both pics were majority shot far from the actual Beltway ― “Olympus” in Louisiana and “White House” in Montreal ― Emmerich’s film is a far better sell, from production designer Kirk M. Petruccelli’s enormously impressive replica set to the visual effects by longtime Emmerich collaborators Volker Engel (an Oscar winner for “Independence Day”) and Marc Weigert. Relatively speaking, the new pic is shrewder politically, too, giving us an enemy from within America’s own borders in place of “Olympus’” central-casting North Korean baddies.
Emmerich also offers the screen’s most overtly Obama-esque commander-in-chief to date in the form of Foxx’s James Sawyer, a self-styled Lincolnian who gets his kicks from buzzing the Lincoln Memorial in Marine One and even carries a pocket watch that once belonged to Honest Abe himself. He’s also, in the words of one Tea Party-ish detractor, “an academic who never served a day in his life,” and his controversial plan to withdraw all U.S. troops from the Middle East has ruffled more than a few feathers in the military-industrial Complex.
Tatum’s John Cale, by contrast, has done his time in the trenches ― three tours of duty in Afghanistan, to be precise. During one of them, he saved the life of a fellow soldier whose uncle happens to be the speaker of the House (Richard Jenkins), earning Cale his current job as a Capitol policeman assigned to the speaker’s security detail. Somewhere in those same years, Cale’s personal life went bust, leaving him with an ex-wife and moody preteen kid to try to win back — an outcome, in the grand scheme of movies like this, that can often be hastened by some extravagant act of heroism.
Strict narrative logicians be forewarned: The cheerfully preposterous coincidences pile up in “White House Down” faster than the body count. Just as a certain John McClane found himself in a Los Angeles office building at the exact moment of a brazen hostage taking, so too does Cale turn up at the White House in the hours before some suspicious-looking home-theater repairmen drop their A/V equipment and break out the big guns (something, it must be said, that the pic makes look so easy, you can’t help wondering if the prez left the keys to the front door under the mat). Cale has come for a job interview to join the president’s Secret Service team ― an idea of which he is quickly disabused by Special Agent Carol Finnerty (Maggie Gyllenhaal), a former college classmate who rattles off a detailed inventory of Cale’s lifelong failure to live up to his potential. (One more doubter to disprove!)
Adding insult to injury, Cale has brought his president-obsessed daughter, Emily (Joey King), along for the day in a touching effort to convince her he isn’t a total failure. When she insists they stick around for an official White House tour, he reluctantly agrees, which is right around the time that all hell breaks loose.
Just what these particular bad guys are after is something “White House Down” reveals gradually, with a few red herrings along the way. What comes to light relatively early, in a modestly provocative twist on the usual terrorist m.o., is that they’re all disgruntled Americans with ideological axes to grind, including an ex-CIA contractor who did “black bag” work in Pakistan, played in a sly bit of casting by head “Zero Dark Thirty” interrogator Jason Clarke. That an about-to-retire Secret Service chief is also mixed up in this will come as a surprise only to those who miss the character’s introductory scene ―glowering into the camera as he removes an Old Glory lapel pin and tells his wife he’ll “be home late” tonight ― or who have never before seen the actor playing said role: James Woods.
But “White House Down” isn’t really selling novelty or invention. It’s a sturdy, old-fashioned bit of escapism that keeps delivering the goods and finds its own small ways of toying with our expectations. In one of screenwriter James Vanderbilt’s niftier touches, Cale doesn’t spend the movie trying to rescue Sawyer but rather on the run with the president, looking for Emily and plotting their escape. This affords Tatum and Foxx a lot of shared screen time, in which they project an effortless, ingratiating chemistry that recalls Mel Gibson and Danny Glover in the first “Lethal Weapon” pic, the characters bonding as fathers and patriots whenever they aren’t dodging bullets.
For much of the pic’s first half, Emmerich keeps the action on a relatively human scale, with Cale and Sawyer engaging the evildoers in tight, claustrophobic spaces including a dumbwaiter shaft and the first kitchen. Eventually, the film makes its way to the South Lawn for a spirited, loop-de-loop car chase involving the bulletproof presidential limo, and to a looming military air strike that threatens to do to the White House what aliens did to it in “Independence Day.” Throughout, Emmerich harbors no greater goal than to keep the audience mindlessly entertained, at which he generally succeeds ― so much so that one is compelled to overlook the niggling particulars, like the fact that Woods, Clarke et al. make for a villain collective ultimately more incompetent than terrifying. Where “Olympus Has Fallen” weighed heavy with ra-ra jingoism, “White House Down” proffers a more innocent kind of Americana, up to and including a climactic setpiece that tips its hat, without a lick of irony, to the War of 1812.
The movie’s most special effect is without doubt Tatum, who gives Cale a strong rooting interest well before the first shots are fired. As in “Magic Mike,” he’s ideally cast as a kind of thinking man’s lunkhead, who makes up in common sense, coolness under pressure and sheer likability what he lacks in book smarts. And though “White House Down” fails to include any proper dance numbers, Tatum’s physical grace is on ample display as he tumbles and glides through one cacophonous action melee after the next. Newcomer King also registers a strong impression as the precocious tyke who runs intellectual circles around her dad (but also proves a chip off the old block where staring down her captors is concerned), while Nicolas Wright offers typically goofy, Emmerich-style comic relief as a know-it-all White House tour guide.