This review contains spoilers… or does it? If you’ve seen Die Hard, you have seen this film. Sure, White House Down has a bit of Independence Day and Air Force One thrown in as well, but you can probably guess exactly how the ‘plot’ goes down even if you’ve just heard the premise in passing. So what is the premise of this film other than simply ‘action film’?
A down-on-his-luck ex-military man, John Cale (Channing Tatum) goes for a job in the secret service. He doesn’t get it. While completing a White House tour with his precocious daughter Emily (Joey King), the Government is attacked. Emily had gone to the bathroom on her own, separating her from her father. Cale goes looking for Emily and inadvertently saves the President.
Lots of bad guys, lots of guns, lots of explosions… People die, the American flag is waved, and there are enough conspiracies and political intrigues to keep The Bold and the Beautiful going for 50-odd years. Can you guess what happens? Cale saves the President, all the hostages, as well as uncovering the giant political conspiracy.
How do I loathe thee? Let me count the ways…
There are so many things wrong with this film that I’m not sure where to start. I suppose I should begin by saying that I am actually a fan of action films in general. Yes, they’re often silly and overblown, but that can be fun. I like good action sequences and enjoy tough guys being badasses. Bruce Willis is my man. So I was actually excited to see this film. After all, Roland Emmerich directed Universal Soldier, Stargate, and Independence Day. Since Independence Day he hasn’t accomplished much – a bunch of throwaway, lackluster blockbusters that everyone wishes they had never bothered watching (such as Godzilla, The Day After Tomorrow, and 2012).
Unfortunately for Emmerich, this film does nothing to improve his current credibility (or lack thereof). The pacing of the film is bizarre, especially for an action film. The first act is far too long – trying to set up characters that are so flimsy the added time devoted to their exposition adds nothing to the story. I had been sitting in the cinema far too long by the time the first explosion went off. This is not how action movies should work. They should be fast from the get go.
What is the ideal tone for an action film? Personally I like the fun ones. The genre does well when it emphasizes the silliness. I like stereotypes in my action films – the tough guy with troubled past and personal demons, the bad guy with a terrible accent and an obvious character flaw. These things can be really fun. So what happened to White House Down?
On the one hand, there is silliness. It is completely ridiculous and over the top. But a lot of the laughs were unintentional on the part of the film’s creators. It swings wildly between serious, overly patriotic, and comic relief. Sometimes this juxtaposition can work (take M*A*S*H for example), but it doesn’t work here. The film feels like it has its hand in too many pies – it doesn’t know what it is or even what it is trying to be. It is trying to be everything and not doing any one of them terribly well.
Plot and characterization
The plot is… well… practically non-existent. Or perhaps there is just so much in there that you can’t work out the one thread that brings it all together? Anyway, it is a mess. There are hints at more interesting, deeper issues that never go anywhere. While there are other ‘hints’ that are about as subtle as a donkey punch – when we meet James Woods’ character, he unpins his American Flag brooch from his lapel, leaving it behind. Hmmm, what’s the symbolism there I wonder?
While it is fairly typical of the genre to have two-dimensional bad guys who are bad ‘just because’, these guys are the epitome of this idea. Each of them has some invented slight from the government. Of course! They are so substance-less I half expected to have them turn on their sides to discover they were simply cardboard cut-outs. There are very few characters introduced in this film that actually have any reason to be included.
People are introduced to us – and as discerning viewers we expect this introduction to become important later on. Well, joke’s on you audience, none of it means anything! Ha! Take, for instance, a news crew that has their own scene in their helicopter. The skies have been shut down, they talk about the fact that they shouldn’t be flying above the White House while all this shit is going on (and the audience knows at this point that both the good guys and the bad guys have missiles to knock out enemies in the sky). And yet… that’s the last we see of them. So, ummm, why were they in it? Oh, I get it, Emmerich wanted there to be a reason for him to include aerial footage of the fight scenes.
Even our main characters have very little going on. Cale fights hard to save his daughter because she’s his daughter. Sure, I get that family ties are strong, but that doesn’t excuse sloppy characterization and lazy writing. The President carries on for the good of the people. The bad guys fight for revenge. The odd member of the bad guy goon squad are characterized a little… but they even manage to fail at this.
Take Tyler (Jimmi Simpson), for instance. He is given more screen time than a lot of the muscle. He’s the computer hacker with an odd quirk – he brings along his religious idols and has an obsession with lollypops. Why do so many sub-par films think that adding some kind of obsession to a character equals characterization? It doesn’t. We don’t really find out much about Cale’s personality other than he is persistent. Maggie Gyllenhaal’s secret service agent is tenacious and highly competent, but other than that, we learnt nothing about her personality.
Channing Tatum was good. He is enjoyable to watch and let’s face it, he looks good doing it (whatever ‘it’ happens to be). With the little he had to work with, he did admirably well. It is true that I would rather he have been more of an asshole rather than a man trying to do better, but that was the script’s fault, not Tatum’s.
On the other hand, Jamie Foxx has apparently forgotten how to act. He was poorly cast and more wooden than Hayden Christensen. I’m not even sure if I can put my finger on his biggest weakness in this film. In every scene, he misses the mark. He can’t hold the tension, he can’t deliver the funny lines, or act appropriately scared. By the end of the film I was hoping Cale wouldn’t save the President, cause the president was annoying. Screw the President; Cale should have made himself President. That would have been more interesting.
The supporting cast was full of good actors, but they had very little to do. James Woods, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Richard Jenkins, and Lance Reddick are all perfectly adequate (and yes, that is meant as praise), but it did make me wonder why they felt they should take on such roles. Joey King plays the ‘raising the stakes’ tool, aka Cale’s daughter Emily. Again, she does remarkably well in the film, despite her character making little sense.
I don’t generally like ‘message’ films or stories. This doesn’t mean that I don’t enjoy a creative work that explores an issue or theme, but it should simply present arguments, rather than trying to bludgeon me to death with them. White House Down is so heavy handed with its message I almost thought I was missing something. Perhaps there is actually some subtlety hidden beneath the overbearing bravado? No, no, that is giving it far too much credit – I was looking for something that wasn’t there. It was just yelling at us in capitals for 2 hours.
What does it say? War is bad. Weapons manufacturers have too much influence over the American Government. We should fight for peace, not revenge. Kids are our future. Patriotism is essential. And so on…
Haven’t I seen this film before?
This film really is a combination of Die Hard, Independence Day, and Air Force One. Independence Day had all those great one-liners and heavy-impact, politically rousing speeches. Air Force One is full of political intrigue and uncertainty when the President is compromised. Add these two to the entire plot of the first Die Hard, and you have White House Down.
It was so familiar it was Déjà vu. In Die Hard, the first ‘bad guy’ McClane kills is Tony, brother to Hans Gruber’s second-in-command, Karl. Karl then wants to go and get revenge, but Gruber insists he keeps his cool. In White House Down, Cale kills Stenz’s very good friend in the initial showdown, which has Stenz responding in the exact same way as Karl. Both feature a quirky computer hacker in the background, and when the baddies finally work out that the thorn in their side is related to one of their hostages, the hostage is used as bait (McClane’s wife Holly and Cale’s daughter Emily). If that wasn’t enough, fear not… Channing Tatum pulls off a bloody white tank top just as well as Bruce Willis.
Verdict: Terrible. If you do watch this film, please don’t bother spending money on it.