What is it with Roland Emmerich and blowing up the White House?
It’s as if he’s got this morbid fascination with the destruction of civilisation; be it aliens in Independence Day, a legendary Japanese giant monster in the godawful Godzilla, climate change in The Day After Tomorrow, or the massively misunderstood “end” of the Mayan calendar in 2012. The man’s obsessed!
White House Down is yet another one of these ‘what if’ movies. What if a group of unconnected international psychopaths manage to get into the White House with an arsenal of weapons and take over? What if they were hired by the embittered head of the secret service? What if, by chance, an ex-soldier is in the White House at the time of their attack, and what if he can escape, protect the president and save his daughter’s life? And what if this all takes place during a tense peace treaty with the Middle East? That’s a lot of ‘what if’s.
Or, what if the writer had re-watched Die Hard recently and decided it needed a big, booming reboot? That’s way more likely. White House Down doesn’t so much doff its cap to Die Hard, but set about it with a butcher’s knife. Here, our John McClane is John Cale (Channing Tatum), an ex-soldier visiting the White House for an interview along with his politically astute daughter, Emily (Joey King).
After being interviewed by Special Agent Carol Finnerty (Maggie Gyllenhaal), an old school-friend no less, Emily persuades him to join a tour group around the White House. Now the characters are in place, everything can kick off, and it does. First, the Capitol building explodes, focussing all the attention on that while the bad guys somehow manage to get into the White House and take over. Meanwhile, the embittered Martin Walker (James Woods), head of the Presidential protection detail, goes rogue, killing his own men and taking the president (Jamie Foxx) hostage.
In a stroke of bad luck that could only befall the loved one of an action hero, Cale’s daughter Emily happens to be in the bathroom as all this happens, armed with only her smartphone. Now he must get back his daughter, rescue the president and save the day.
The first of many problems with White House Down came in the first five minutes. Immediately, we can predict who the good guys are, and more annoyingly, who the bad guy is. This renders any shock value at the inevitable plot twist impotent – the audience are all intelligent enough to know that when a character looks down solemnly at the photo of his dead son, dogtags and all, he’s got an axe to grind. So, when he turns out to be the renegade inside the White House, the surprise just isn’t there.
The characters themselves are a major problem too. It’s as if they’ve just been plucked from the shelf of stock action movies: the divorced ex-soldier and his daughter; the bookish president who turns out to be adept at killing people; the classically good actor hamming up the role of the deranged bad guy with a score to settle; the geeky yet charismatic hacker (a low-rent carbon copy of Die Hard’s Theo), the list goes on. Fine, you might say, these characters work in their situation, but where Die Hard had characters that seemed at least plausible and human, these are so flat that it’s hard to really get behind the heroes and root for them.
But, by far the worst thing about this movie, and many like it, is the almost cynical way it panders to every conceivable member of the audience. Like action? Here’s a big gunfight. Like comedy? Here’s a buddy partnership between the hero and the president. Are political thrillers your thing? Have a dash of intrigue. Very few films can pull this off, and this isn’t one of them. The result is a hotchpotch of violent action scenes, gentle humour and lightweight politics, linked together with boring exposition and glaringly obvious plot twists, none of which really deliver.
White House Let Down.