Friday, June 28, 2013

America, Eff Yeah! — "White House Down" a large popcorn tub of insanely ridiculous fun


White House Down (2013)
131 min., rated PG-13. 

In 1997, we had the battle of the volcano movies with "Dante's Peak" and "Volcano," and humanity ran afoul of space objects in both 1998's "Deep Impact" and "Armageddon." Now, the White House just keeps falling down and can't catch a break. "Olympus Has Fallen"—or, the first 'Die Hard in the White House'—was just released three months ago, so it's high time we saw 1600 Penn Avenue get terrorized again this year, right? With Hollywood thinking we're way past 9/11, it's kind of queasy and exploitative that terrorism is so often treated lightly as blockbuster fare. However, "White House Down" would have to be cynical to rub the viewer the wrong way. Instead, this ridiculous entertainment machine is helmed by Velveeta-churning director Roland Emmerich ("Godzilla," "The Day After Tomorrow," "2012"), who has never met a monument he didn't want to obliterate, and he actually has a good sense of humor to name-check his own "Independence Day," which saw aliens blow up the White House.

Channing Tatum plays John Cale, a heroic miracle man. But first, he's a divorced military vet working with the Capitol Police who's off to the White House for an interview with the Secret Service. On the same day President James Sawyer (Jamie Foxx) has proposed peace with the Middle East, Cale takes his 11-year-old daughter Emily (Joey King) with him because she's a political junkie with a YouTube channel. After failing his interview with unwearied Secret Service agent Carol Finnerty (Maggie Gyllenhaal), father and daughter go on a tour, only to be separated as terrorists casually waltz into the building and set off an explosion in the Capitol Building. Leaving the White House under siege, the group of no-goodniks, including an ex-Black Ops soldier (Jason Clarke), a computer hacker (Jimmi Simpson), and other mercenaries, is led by someone who has an in with the POTUS and might have a more personal motive than just waging a Third World War. Meanwhile, Cale must escort the president to safety, but he's not about to leave his daughter as a hostage, either.

This PG-13-rated "Die Hard" knockoff—itself a better sequel than this year's "A Good Day to Die Hard"might have the cards stacked against it, with an unintentionally hokey bit of flag-waving jingoism, Tatum's silly exchange with a squirrel, an implausibly far-stretched conspiracy with triple crosses, and an overlong 131-minute running time. Making the R-rated, far more violent "Olympus Has Fallen" look subtle by comparison, "White House Down" is even more gloriously outlandish but better for it and a lot more fun. Never too self-serious nor too deliberately self-aware, it doesn't just go over the top but throws in the kitchen sink, as well as the whole kitchen. And there's nothing wrong with that. Emmerich and screenwriter James Vanderbilt ("The Amazing Spider-Man") clearly seem to have no delusions of grandeur other than to entertain and manage to inject playful humor into a dire situation where grenades go off and lives are at stake.

The pairing of Tatum and Foxx helps greatly, and they appear to be having fun. Tatum is physical, charismatic, and root-worthy as Cale, an everyman character obviously modeled after Bruce Willis' John McClane, not only from bearing the same first name but also stripping down to a wife-beater. As President Sawyer, an obvious emulation of Barack Obama (Nicorette Gum-chewing and all), Foxx puts on a straight face when he's leading the country but, once slipping on his comfortable Air Jordans, he trades funny, spontaneous quips with his muscular savior. The supporting cast is more than competent, including Gyllenhaal; James Woods, as the retiring security chief; Richard Jenkins, as the Speaker of the House; and Michael Murphy, as the Vice President. A very funny Nicolas Wright goes all out as a tour guide who warns the terrorists to respect the White House's precious valuables. Young actress King, as Cale's daughter, is expressive, but as directed, her actions are often embarrassingly clunky. It's set up early on that Dad has missed her flag twirling at a talent show, so you can bet her talent will come in handy at some point.

Aside from the occasionally all-too-fake matte paintings in exterior shots, "White House Down" is exciting and cleanly shot. Courtesy of cinematographer Anna Foerster, the film never loses track of the action with incoherent shaky-cam or choppy quick cuts that seem to dampen most noisy action fare. Emmerich makes good use of the Presidential Palace, with a limo chase scene on the front lawn with President Sawyer firing a rocket launcher (it's funnier than it sounds), to the catacombs where John F. Kennedy allegedly snuck in Marilyn Monroe, and a fight on the roof as air missiles are being fired. No one can really defend "White House Down" for being a good movie, but here is an escapist summer movie that embraces being an escapist summer movie. You want subtlety? Stay home. You want a message? Western Union can help you there. It's still an insanely stupid, check-your-brain-at-the-door action-fest, but it's always in charge of its own cheesiness without careening into self-parody. That's hard to do. More discerning viewers could call this a guilty pleasure, but who's to say you should be guilty for having so much fun? 

Grade:

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