Twenty-five years ago, Sandra Boynton wrote a greeting card where a cat tells his or her paramour, “What I lack in finesse, I make up with raw enthusiasm.” It’s a cute sentiment, and it also serves as a shockingly good description of director Roland Emmerich’s filmography (“2012,” “The Day After Tomorrow,” “Independence Day”). His movies are not what one would call subtle, but they’re infused with a relentlessness that carries them through even the darkest plot hole and corniest joke.
None of Emmerich’s movies, though, works as hard as “White House Down.” This is a script that feels like it was born from a weekend binge session of caffeine and ‘90s-era Jerry Bruckheimer movies, capped off with about 30 minutes of Wikipedia searches on the layout of the White House and the succession of the chain of command during wartime. And yet, somehow, it (mostly) rises above its shortcomings to deliver an entertaining shoot ‘em up. Channing Tatum should get the lion’s share of the credit for this, thanks to his effortless charm, but it doesn’t hurt that he and Jamie Foxx have good chemistry as well.
Former soldier John Cale (Tatum) is trying to land a job with the Secret Service, and he brings his estranged political junkie daughter Emily (Joey King, who looks like the little sister of Alia Shawkat) with him to his interview at the White House in the hopes of buttering her up. While they are there, a group of goons infiltrates the grounds and dispatches with White House security rather quickly. John and Emily were apart when the attack takes place, and as John looks for Emily, he winds up locating and rescuing President Sawyer (Foxx), though both are still trapped inside the White House. Cale and Sawyer try to sort out why the siege is happening and who could be responsible, but more importantly for Cale, he needs to find Emily.
The fingerprints of roughly half a dozen movies can be found here, but “Die Hard” and “Con Air” are the largest influences, given the ‘good man caught behind enemy lines’ premise of all three stories. And while those are both good sources (don’t let anyone tell you otherwise about “Con Air”), “White House Down” makes too many rookie mistakes to be put in the same league as the other two. In the span of about five minutes, the words “Did you know” and “You know” begin close to ten exposition-laden sentences that would make Austin Powers blush. The script was written by James Vanderbilt, who penned “The Amazing Spider-Man” as well as its sequel. Perhaps this was a script he wrote shortly after graduating from film school – which he did in 1999, lending credence to my Bruckheimer binge theory – and it was recently dusted off and sold after he landed a couple of higher-profile gigs. Whatever the case, it’s clumsy, and relies largely on professional soldiers being terrible shots.
And yet…hell, those two words might sum up Emmerich’s career better than the Boynton card. Logic dictates that his movies, with their litany of flaws, should be unwatchable. And yet, they’re not, and this one is no exception. We get to see a bulletproof limo do donuts on the White House lawn (who doesn’t want to do that?). We get to see Channing Tatum kick ass. We get to see an impressive cast (Richard Jenkins, Maggie Gyllenhaal, James Woods and “Fringe” veteran Lance Reddick) raise the material to another level. Most importantly, we get to see Emmerich blow stuff up good, which he does without getting all masturbatory about it (ahem, Michael Bay).
“White House Down” should not be as enjoyable as it is. The premise is well worn, there are few surprises, and too many characters are saved from certain death by fortunate timing. And yet – those words again – it finds a way. Pass the popcorn.