Home invasion thrillers have always been a staple of movies—just this month “The Purge” proved an unaccountably successful example of the genre—but only recently has the White House become the target. Not so long ago we had Antoine Fuqua’s ludicrous “Olympus Has Fallen,” and now Roland Emmerich—who, after all, made the destruction of the iconic building a crowd-pleasing special-effect in “Independence Day”—takes his shot at the notion with the unimaginatively titled “White House Down.”
As it turns out, it’s not only the title that lacks inventiveness. What’s astonishing is how many beats James Vanderbilt’s script shares with “Olympus.” Yes, the mechanism used by invaders to gain admittance to the place is different—a fleet of home-entertainment trucks rather than sanitation vehicles! And the motivation of the well-armed perpetrators is different (although there’s an incredible similarity in the ultimate villains, who are frankly telegraphed so far in advance that it would take a pretty dense viewer to be surprised by their unmasking). John Cale (Channing Tatum), the “Die Hard”-like protagonist who saves the day, isn’t a Secret Service agent like Gerard Butler was in the earlier movie, but merely a prospective one, and the youngster he’s anxious to protect not the president’s son but his own daughter Emily (Joey King). A great many of the episodes are strikingly similar—the air assault met by missiles from the White House roof, the long-drawn-out acquisition of nuclear-launch codes (though for different purposes), the absurdly easy elimination of all the protective personnel on the grounds. And of course there are the bone-crunching fistfights that periodically occur between the hero and the various intruders, as well as the ineptitude of the military commanders trying to cope with what’s happening from their elaborate command post somewhere in Washington.
The major difference this time around is that the President, James Sawyer (Jamie Foxx), isn’t a captive of the bad-guys. Quickly freed by Cale, he goes on the run with him, dodging bullets (and occasionally firing them) alongside the rugged SS wannabe as they try to escape the White House grounds—in one sequence memorable for its silliness, engaging in a car chase in the presidential limo while pursued by what looks like an armored personnel vehicle. In one respect this is beneficial to the picture. Tatum and Foxx have a good chemistry, and Foxx adds some nice, if rather juvenile, humor to the whole pursuit scenario. On the other hand, it must be admitted that while you can easily accept Tatum as a divorced dad who’s kind of a lovable lunkhead in his personal and professional lives, but a sturdy, determined ex-soldier and intrepid fighter, Foxx isn’t remotely credible as POTUS, and the policy he enunciates that sets the plot in motion—a Middle East peace plan so simplistic as to be utterly laughable—isn’t either.
That’s a problem, of course, only if you try to take “White House Down” at all seriously, which is entirely the wrong approach. It’s basically a live-action comic book, much as “Die Hard” was, and it would work on that level if Fuqua’s movie—inferior though it might be—didn’t make it feel like a second serving of the same meal. Still, one has to admit that the ingredients are classy. Physically it’s a first-rate piece of work, with Kirk M. Petruccelli’s production design, the art direction supervised by Isabelle Guay and the set decoration by Marie-Soleil Denomme and Paul Hotte all contributing to a look more convincing than the action that goes on in front of their backdrops. Adam Wolfe’s editing is only slightly less commendable, allowing the movie to extend well beyond the two hours mark but keeping the plot convolutions (if not the geography) clear. Thomas Wander’s score is a bit more subdued than what one might expect, though no less button-pushing.
The supporting cast is aces, too, with King a standout as the plucky daughter who manages to blog out photos of what’s going on inside the White House online, but James Woods (as the retiring Secret Service chief), Maggie Gyllenhaal (as one of his loyal subordinates, and an old friend of Cale’s), Jason Clarke (as the snarling lead intruder), Michael Murphy (as the weakling vice president), Matt Craven (as a Capitol cop), Nicolas Wright (as a comic-relief White House tour guide), and Richard Jenkins (as the Speaker of the House of Representatives) all doing stellar work, although sometimes in parts that require a good deal of scenery-chomping. It’s not Jimmi Simpson’s fault that his turn as Tyler, the super-hacker who enjoys talking to himself and licking suckers, is so irritating. Vanderbilt and Emmerich decided, following today’s action cinema playbook, that such a villainous character should constantly be listening to classical music—in this case, Beethoven. Why can’t somebody have the courage to portray these smugly nasty types as fans of the kind of crappy pop stuff we all know such creatures would be devoted to? Is it really necessary to trash serious composers—and those who appreciate their music—by perpetuating this idiotic stereotype?
But at least Tyler’s of a piece with the other characters in “White House Down,” who are all stereotypes as well. This is a summer action movie without a brain in its head, but if you approach it by putting yours on hold, you’ll find it skillfully enough made to hold your attention as you consume that tub of popcorn and—given its length—a refill as well.