There had to be at least one big movie this summer that would be an unabashed disaster – an epitome of awful Hollywood cliche and Unthinking Screenwriting 101 so egregious that Michael Bay himself would likely spit on it. Congratulations, Roland Emmerich: White House Down is a movie so poorly conceived and executed, so soon after another movie did the same story but better (and even it was a B-movie at best) that you have actually befuddled some major critics into thinking that you’re doing brilliant parody, two words that should and will never come within a country mile of describing anything you do. Dumb fun is one thing, and I’m all for action movies that aren’t especially logical if they bring some good sequences to bear (see my review of the last Die Hard for a prime example). But you have to embody the label – it doesn’t work if you only remember the dumb part, and leave fun at home.
Instead of Gerard Butler as an actual Secret Service agent, we get Channing Tatum as John Cale, a guy who wants to be a Secret Service agent, and demonstrates his commitment to security by bringing his 11 year-old daughter to the job interview and letting her wander off. Said daughter has lived her entire life in Washington DC, is a politics nerd to the point of Rain Man-like babbling, yet has never once actually been to the White House, clearly because her parents are the worst ever (also, dad neglected to come watch her in a flag-twirling contest. I shit you not).
James Woods is not amused.
So after the interview, it’s a daddy-daughter day on the White House tour, but unfortunately for them the White House is only guarded by the Keystone Kops, who are powerless to do much when a gang of terrorists who look like gay German bikers invade, under the highly clever ruse of being dressed like TV repairmen. Also, did you know a small explosive in a janitor’s cart can collapse the entire Capitol dome from inside? Nor did anyone in this movie except the insane bad guys.
This fictional world is in a state of turmoil – President James Sawyer (Jamie Foxx, capturing Obama’s cadences but not his gravitas) has announced that he is unilaterally pulling all U.S. troops out of the Middle East, because he has made a deal with the new president of Iran. Who on earth could possibly oppose such a plan? Just racists and the military industrial complex, that’s who. It’s probably folly to take this ridiculously simplistic view of geopolitics seriously, but I have lived in Europe, and know many who do think this way; it’s not a stretch to suspect the German-born Emmerich might.
Anyway, before the day is through, the black president will have donned his Air Jordans (again, I shit you not) to team with John Cale and realize that sometimes you have to kill people to get your way, because apparently it wasn’t covered at any point in his term that the commander in chief is invariably responsible for some deaths. Meanwhile, outside the White House, the Veep (Michael Murphy) and House Speaker (Richard Jenkins) have to decide when and how to declare the president dead if they lose contact with him.
White House Down‘s sins of stupidity wouldn’t be so bad if everything else weren’t so boring. Being PG-13, it lacks the over-the-top violence and gore of Olympus Has Fallen, but it also lacks the ability to stage a scene as well. Tatum gets his ass handed to him by baddie Jason Clarke in their fight scenes, which are chopped to all hell like the Rock/Vin Diesel battle in Fast Five – I know who wins, but I’m not quite sure how. A car chase around the front lawn (because they can’t crash out through the reinforced railings) garners some momentum, but the various shootouts between aerial vehicles and weapons stations on the roof were done better last time, with much of the CGI being equally bad.
In one particularly egregious moment, a character who is supposed to have a brain tumor instead develops the symptoms of a heart attack, and moderates them by taking pills from a prescription container marked for Lorazepam – an anti-anxiety drug (it’s as if the set decorator just asked if anyone on set that day had a prescription med of any kind). In another, the White House tour guide makes sure to drop a reference to Independence Day, just so people remember that they used to like when Emmerich attacked the White House (I never did; not for political reasons, though – it just never was a good movie to me).
I suppose if you thought Jeff Goldblum using a laptop to upload a virus into an alien computer was brilliant satire, this could be too, but I hardly think it was then, and am virtually certain it isn’t now (the nods to YouTube in this film feel like the nods to the Internet in prior works – a shoehorned-in attempt to be hip). Nothing about Emmerich’s filmography suggests intelligence or self-awareness – just a fetish for guys in uniforms, and a penchant for cheaping out on big action sequences. How he has earned the nostalgic love he seems to be getting in some quarters, I know not – Autobots acting like racial stereotypes because they learned English from the Internet seems downright clever by comparison.
Not that I really was before…but I’m soooo not interested in the back-to-back Independence Day sequels now.