Friday, November 8, 2013

FI: White House Down

White House Down
US, 2013
Directed by Roland Emmerich

Implausibility goes hand-in-hand with big-budget action movies, and always has. In order to set up these kinds of situations, where the hero is in the right place at the right time to save the day, there generally has to be a level of plot coincidence and a number of bad choices on the part of the bad guys paving the way. White House Down is no exception. Disaster-meister Roland Emmerich, working from a script by James Vanderbilt, crafts a political action thriller with overtones of Die Hard and The Rock. Here, a group of right-wing domestic terrorists, led by disgruntled retiring Secret Service agent Martin Walker (James Woods), attempt to destabilize the administration of pacifist president James Sawyer (Jamie Foxx). Luckily for the president, John Cale (Channing Tatum), a Capitol Police Officer assigned to the detail of Speaker of the House Eli Raphelson (Richard Jenkins), happens to be at the White House to interview with Agent Carol Finnerty (Maggie Gyllenhaal) for a job in the Secret Service. Lingering after his unsuccessful interview to play "good dad" to his brainy daughter Emily (Joey King), Cale winds up the last man standing when the terrorists infiltrate the "castle." Separated from Emily, Cale has to rescue (and team up with) the President and save his daughter—and the world—before the bad guys' convoluted plan comes to fruition.

If that sounds like a lot, well, it kind of is. White House Down is all over the shop, plot-wise, and its gestures towards pacifism are somewhat at odds with the violent, fetishistic action on screen. There are a lot of moving parts in both the plot and in the choppily-edited action sequences, and both of these things detract from the film's strengths. White House Down is at its best when Tatum's Cale and Foxx's Sawyer are working together, bickering and outsmarting the terrorists. Tatum in particular has grown into a likable, charming screen presence, and this role takes advantage of his physique and his comic timing. Foxx, meanwhile, provides his own levity as well as some Obama-like tics to his character. If the film were nothing more than these two men trying to escape the White House and defeat its occupiers, it might have felt less bloated and more fun.

Leaving aside the issues of bloat and choppiness, some of the film's action is well-handled, if only through the way it demonstrates ordinary people's reactions to the attacks. This and a neat gimmick involving news coverage of Emily's cell phone videos from inside the besieged White House do well establishing a reality on the ground that the film's clumsy over-the-top-ness might have lost. Apart from the leads—and James Woods, who we seem to see so rarely these days—the film also gets good work out of Jimmi Simpson (best known as It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia's grimy Liam McPoyle) as a wily hacker and the always-fearsome Jason Clarke as a mercenary. Someone needs to give him the lead in a project that highlights his Hackman-meets-Penn chops. But, overall, as much as I wanted to turn my brain off and enjoy White House Down for the stupid actioner that it is, I never quite reached that level of engagement. Its moments of self-awareness were too few, its bad guys' dumb decisions too many, and its fights and shootouts too muddled in the edit bay to allow me to settle in. It isn't terrible, especially for an Emmerich film, but it's not as far from it as I had hoped.

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