“White House Down”
Starring: Channing Tatum, Jamie Foxx, James Woods, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Richard Jenkins, Joey King, Jason Clarke, Jimmi Simpson
Rating: PG-13, for fleeting profanity and relentless action violence
Everything works in this well-paced action epic
By Derrick Bang
Enterprise film critic
You gotta give ’em credit: Despite an invasion premise that confines the primary characters to the labyrinthine White House interior, this crowd-pleasing action epic manages to work in a car chase.
And a reasonably plausible car chase, at that.
Director Roland Emmerich and writer James Vanderbilt actually deserve credit for far more than that. Despite arriving late to this high-profile copycat party, “White House Down” is superior to spring’s “Olympus Has Fallen”: a much smarter script, vastly better characters and a superior blend of action and hell-for-leather humor.
This is the way I expect our heads of state to behave: defiant and resourceful in the face of death, rather than the cowardly, impotent weenies who populated “Olympus Has Fallen.”
Granted, both films offer the same sort of quasi-political hokum, but “White House Down” delivers the (mostly) one-man derring-do with far more style. Despite a self-indulgent running time of 131 minutes, Emmerich and editor Adam Wolfe keep the pace crisp, the tension coiled and the heroics more or less reasonable.
Vanderbilt’s narrative is a series of clever teases, with every small triumph offset by a newly discovered setback; we therefore cheer each cathartic victory while remaining invested in the primary goal that, vexingly, remains out of reach.
Best of all, we have a solid quartet of villains to boo and hiss: a turncoat mastermind and three delectably unscrupulous associates, each playing his part with gleefully malevolent brio. After all, heroes are measured by their adversaries.
John Cale (Channing Tatum), a capable D.C. policeman, is less successful on the home front, having let down his young daughter, Emily (Joey King), once too often. This comes as no surprise to ex-wife Melanie (Rachelle Lefevre), who, while sympathetic, doesn’t put much stock in Cale’s insistence that he’s trying to atone for past mistakes. Emily, also not impressed, prefers to call her estranged father by his first name.
Hoping to recover some ground, Cale scores a second White House pass so that Emily can tag along when he applies for his dream job, as a member of the Secret Service staff assigned to protect President Sawyer (Jamie Foxx). Alas, Special Agent Finnerty (Maggie Gyllenhaal) also knows too much about Cale’s various character flaws, in part thanks to a long-ago affair with him. She thus denies him the shot.
Not wanting to admit this newest failure to Emily, Cale yields to her desire for a White House tour. We’ve learned by now that Emily is a hard-core political enthusiast, with a passion for detail and a dreamy-eyed crush on President Sawyer; she therefore knows the answers to all the tricky questions posed by the tour guide (Nicolas Wright, as Donnie), much to the latter’s amused frustration.
Alas, this just happens to be the day when Walker (James Woods), a 25-year Secret Service veteran, goes rogue and orchestrates a complex revenge plot. Within minutes, thanks to an assault team that cleverly infiltrates the White House — and let’s hope it wouldn’t be anywhere near this easy, in real life! — the demolished Capitol dome has crashed into the lower floors, Walker has the president at gunpoint, 70 or so tour members are being held hostage, and Cale has been separated from his daughter (who chose this moment to use one of the posh White House bathrooms).
Security aides manage to get Vice President Hammond (Michael Murphy) airborne in Air Force One, while Speaker of the House Eli Raphelson (Richard Jenkins) is similarly safe in the military command center overseen by spit-and-polish Gen. Caulfield (Lance Reddick).
The invading commandos are led by the vicious Stenz (Jason Clarke) and the somewhat unstable Killick (Kevin Rankin), both of whom think nothing of offing a high-level politico in order to secure compliance from the others. Meanwhile, über-hacker Tyler (Jimmi Simpson), happily ensconced in the White House emergency bunker, methodically punches through all computer security protocols in order to gain access to … we know not what. But we can imagine it’ll be bad, if he succeeds.
Oh, and outside military forces are prevented from mounting a rescue mission because a) they don’t want to risk injuring President Sawyer; and b) the baddies have control of the White House roof, where they’re able to repel any incursions with RPGs.
(Yeah, those are thin excuses, but hey: We’ve got a movie to enjoy. Go with the flow.)
Can Cale make a difference? Will the sun rise in the east?
Tatum makes an engaging action hero from the “I’ve no other choice” school, as opposed to guys who know what they’re doing at all times. Cale’s desire to find and protect his daughter is ample motivation: at times a stronger incentive than saving a president he didn’t vote for (one of this film’s many droll running gags).
That said, Cale quickly links up with Sawyer, and the two become a resourceful team: The former has the military training — tours of duty in Afghanistan, carefully noted early on — while the latter knows “his house” inside and out.
Foxx is careful to maintain Sawyer’s limitations: He’s a decisive and quick-thinking strategist, to be sure, but otherwise a vulnerable head of state quite content to follow Cale’s lead (as opposed to, for example, Harrison Ford’s commando-style president in 1997’s “Air Force One”). This is smart synergy on the part of Emmerich and Vanderbilt: Cale and Sawyer cleverly complement each other, just as Tatum and Foxx make excellent use of the initially prickly wariness between these two characters, which (of course) quickly blossoms into mutual trust.
The stand-out performance, however, comes from young Joey King’s bold and plucky Emily: definitely the toughest, smartest and most quick-witted little girl we’ve seen in a long time. King pulls it all off quite credibly; when she screws her little face into a furious sneer and defiantly stares down Stenz and Killick, angrily telling one to get out of her face, it’s hard to resist shouting, “You GO, girl!”
Gyllenhaal is properly focused and steely eyed as the capable Finnerty, while Simpson — a popular character actor with an active résumé of big-screen and TV roles — has a field day as the droll, lollypop-sucking Tyler.
Woods chews up the scenery in similar style, as the vengeance-fueled Walker. Woods always is at his best as an impatient villain who grows increasingly annoyed with his underlings, contempt dripping from every hard-bitten syllable. He’s the pluperfect criminal mastermind astonished by the interference of one lone guy: a juicy addition to the bad-guy template established so well by Alan Rickman, in 1988’s “Die Hard” (the only noteworthy entry in that series).
Vanderbilt knows his way around twisty scenarios, having adapted Robert Graysmith’s book for director David Fincher’s 2007 handling of “Zodiac.” Vanderbilt is clever about details, so pay close attention to the opening act; clues are dropped that’ll later prove quite significant.
Emmerich has a long history of thunderously overblown, audience-pleasing epics that go back to “Stargate” and “Independence Day,” and more recently include the less satisfying “10,000 BC” and “2012.” I’m happy to note that “White House Down” lacks the unpalatably casual mass brutality of “2012”; all the characters here matter, and the occasional instances of collateral homicide take place logically, rather than as a pointless excuse to ratchet up the body count.
In sum, “White House Down” is a capably mounted and enjoyably executed ride. You really can’t expect more from a summer popcorn thriller.
— Read more of Derrick Bang’s film criticism at http://derrickbang.blogspot.com. Comment on this review at www.davisenterprise.com