Tuesday, July 2, 2013

WHITE HOUSE DOWN Is Ridiculous ... But Also Ridiculously Entertaining


- The marketing of White House Down was all wrong. I can't help but wonder if the misdirection contributed to the film's underwhelming box office performance. The ads and trailers made this out to be some sort of gritty, hardcore action film. But in reality, it's anything but. This is, thankfully, vintage Roland Emmerich. Big, bombastic, cheesy as all hell, and possessing of a childlike glee and unironic grandiosity that has become Emmerich's trademark over the years. Think of it this way: Spielberg's classic family films appeal to your inner eight-year-old - wish-fulfillment fantasies that play off of childhood fears and flights of fancy. Michael Bay's cynical Transformer films repackage childhood nostalgia for the too-cool-for-toys high school jocks. Emmerich hits that sweet spot just in between. His movies are BEST MOVIE EVER! material for twelve and thirteen year olds everywhere. They're fundamentally innocent and naive, but there's just enough over-the-top violence, epic scope, and strategically-timed profanity to give them that added cool-factor. I mean, I still remember that day in 1994, coming out of the theater after watching Independence Day, having been rocked to my twelve year old core. This, I was convinced, was the best thing I'd ever seen. The movie had everything I ever dreamed of in one film: aliens, aerial battles, Area 51, and Jews kicking ass. It was everything my preteen self wanted in a movie and more. I imagine that one or two twelve year olds are going to get a similar feeling of "best thing ever" after walking out of WHITE HOUSE DOWN. No, it's not in the same league as Independence Day, but there's a similarly unbridled sense of movie-making joy at play here. It's not particularly smart or cerebral or sophisticated. Logic is sparse. But holy hell, does Roland Emmerich go all out here. Lacking a subtle bone in his body, Emmerich crafts a movie that is joyously, eye-rollingly ridiculous, and, undoubtedly hugely entertaining. You will probably lose brain cells - many brain cells - while watching it. But hey, this is what Emmerich does, and does well. It's a summer blockbuster for the twelve year old in all of us.

Where Emmerich has always drawn comparisons to Spielberg is the way in which the big action arcs of his movies intertwine with more personal arcs that are, in their own way, just as integral to the story. And so, Emmerich takes his time in this one setting the stage for the carnage to come. He introduces us to Channing Tatum's John Cale - a White House security staffer who's hoping to make a career upgrade to the President's secret service detail. It's all part of the divorced Cale's plan to get his life back on track, and to impress his preteen daughter Emily (Joey King) - a budding political and presidential buff. When Cale goes for his interview (conducted by Maggie Gyllenhaal's head-of-secret-service, who happens to be an old flame), Emily accompanies him, so that the two can take a tour of the White House together afterwards. As the two take the tour (and Cale mopes after being denied the job - seems he's got raw potential but not the qualifications), all hell breaks loose. As it turns out, the President (a very Obama-esque Jamie Foxx) is looking to sign a controversial Middle East peace treaty, and certain right wingers want to stop it at any cost. With the help of an inside man or two, the White House is attacked by a paramilitary group (led by Zero Dark Thirty's Jason Clarke), and Emily is part of a group taken hostage by the bad guys. Of course, Cale is left as all that's standing between the attackers and their potentially earth-shattering plans.

Here's another area where the movie's marketing was misleading: the ads made it seem like this was to be the Channing Tatum and Jamie Foxx show. But the truth is much more exciting, in that the two leads are surrounded by a ton of fantastic supporting players. A trademark of Emmerich's films is a strong ensemble cast, and White House Down is no different. And for a movie like this, you need people who can pull off earnest and over-the-top without getting too silly. Luckily, the movie is in some ways carried by young Joey King. She's great as Emily - smart and sweet, but creeping up on teenager-ish smart alecky tendencies. We all know that kid characters can be super annoying in this sort of movie, unless played by a special talent who knows how to play things just right. Luckily, King is up to the task, and plays a kid who other kids can identify with and root for, and who adults will only roll their eyes at once or twice.

Also, dude ... Lance Reddick is in this movie. He's really just a minor side character, but I'm still going to mention him right up top. Because Lance Reddick is awesome, and he is basically *the* best actor in the biz at selling lines like "Sir, Norad has been compromised." and making otherwise insane-sounding things seem totally badass and gravitas-infused. Note to all movie marketing people: put Lance Reddick in your movie trailers, and I'll know that the film is legit. Meanwhile - and from the trailers, who knew? - a crap ton of other awesome people are in this movie. People like the great Richard Jenkins, as the meek Speaker of the House, and James Woods, as the retiring Head of Presidential Detail, who ends up playing a major, unexpected part in the film. Yep, Lance Reddick, Richard Jenkins, and James Woods are ALL IN THIS MOVIE, and they each kick a fair degree of ass, hamming it up and doing what they do best.

Jason Clarke is great as a take-no-prisoners mercenary type. This guy is going places. Also excellent as a villain is Kevin Rankin - so good on Justified as Devil - as Clarke's redneck right-hand-man. Jimmi Simpson is also awesomely evil as the team's psycho-sinister computer hacker. This is another area where Emmerich channels Spielberg - each of his characters has some quirk or defining trait that makes them stand out. No generic stuff here. Suffice it to say, what could have been a bland team of villains is made hugely entertaining thanks to the antics of Clarke, Rankin, and Simpson.

As for Tatum and Foxx, both are good, but in some ways, they may be the weakest part of the movie. Tatum is okay as the leading man, but to me, he still lacks the sort of action-hero charisma that you want for this sort of movie. It's weird, because he's proven that he can be funny as hell in movies like 21 Jump St. But as an heir apparent to the Stallones and Schwarzennegers of the world, I'm not quite sure he has what it takes. Foxx, meanwhile, was so good in Django, and perhaps that movie was still too fresh in my mind to take him seriously as the kind of guy who could become president. Foxx adopts several Obama mannerisms and tics (he even chews Nicorette gum), but to me, there was never any doubt that his President Sawyer would be able to kick ass when called upon. And so scenes where we're supposed to be shocked and delighted that this President can mix it up with the terrorists mano e mano, well, they aren't all that shocking. And Foxx plays President Sawyer as a somewhat comedic character - you can see him revert to his over-the-top Living Color days when he's quipping and spouting one liners. Point being, this is the sort of movie where the actors need to play it totally straight for things to work (think Bill Pullman in Independence Day). Foxx is a little too broadly comic at times for us to take his Prez very seriously.

Back to Emmerich for a second ... the director does give in to modernity a bit and throws in some quick-cut editing and shaky-cam fight scenes here and there. Mostly though, watching WHITE HOUSE DOWN is a pleasant reminder of how a good action director can craft a battle or fight scene that's exciting and tells a story, all while being relatively easy to follow. Emmerich doesn't get enough credit as a great action director - he does Michael Bay style bombast without all the visual excess - he keeps things clean, and knows how to do big money shots for maximum dramatic effect. If anything, he at times overdoes the melodrama. Like I said, there isn't a subtle bone in his body. And so certain moments are *so* melodramatic that they are just too much. At the same time, I think that Emmerich is above all a showman, and he seems pretty well aware that he's crafting over-the-top, borderline ridiculous entertainment. He knows he's doing a live-action cartoon, and the humor and numerous winks at the audience in the film speak to that.

At the end of the day, on the grand sliding scale of Roland Emmerich summer blockbusters, this one falls well below the legendary awesomeness of Independence Day, but well above more mediocre efforts like The Day After Tomorrow. And, hey, maybe it's just me, but as the years go by, Emmerich's old-school brand of popcorn spectacle takes on an increasing tinge of nostalgic charm. What was once controversial and shocking now feels safe, reliable, and relatively harmless. In the world of Emmerich, Presidents can personally deliver K-O's to terrorists, a down-on-his-luck blue-collar schmo can save the world *and* win back the love of his daughter, and nobody - and I mean nobody - can get one over on the good ol' U-S-of-A. Cheesy? Sure. Ridiculous? Hell yeah. But in some ways, this is all you could want from a dumb-fun summer blockbuster. Bring the whole family, and enjoy.

My Grade: B+

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