White House Down, in which the '90s director to end all '90s directors, Roland "Independence Day" Emmerich, parties like it's 1999, aided by writer James Vanderbilt, whose career didn't start until the 2000s, but has, based on the evidence of the film, been spending all of that time ready and eager to plunge right into the story tropes and dialogue of that recently bygone era.
Unlike so many '90s films, though, the form that WHD takes is not exactly "Die Hard in an X", with X referring in this case to the White House; it was this exact tack taken by this spring's Olympus Has Fallen, a cheaply-made rushed knock-off of WHD that, as it turns out, is almost precisely at the same quality level as the movie it was copying, though for different reasons. No, Emmerich's film turns out to be, well, Emmerich's film: a big, BIG riff on the '70s disaster formula with plot beats and character details that happen almost exactly the same way that they happened in ID4, or Godzilla, or even the 2000s '90s move The Day After Tomorrow.
So, for example, we have divorcée John Cale (Channing Tatum), whose 11-year-old daughter Emily (Joey King, a child actress I am beginning to admire very much) can barely stand him, owing to his non-stop fuckupitude and tendency to miss important events and expect his far-more-tolerant-than-she-needs-to-be ex-wife (Rachelle Lefevre) to bail him out. Cale is also working right now as the chauffeur for Speaker Raphelson (Richard Jenkins) of the House of Representatives, but trying his mightiest to get into the Secret Service, and as the film begins, he's finally managed to sweet-talk Jenna (Jackie Geary), a high-level staff member under the Vice President (Michael Murphy) into setting him up with an interview. Who should prove to be the interview, though, but Carol Finnerty (Maggie Gyllenhaal), high-ranking agent and apparently a former girlfriend, or even more likely a former one-night-stand, who regards Cale's unimpressive resume and personal history of never finishing anything he starts as exactly the wrong qualifications to bodyguard for the president. Now, in a traditional '90s Disaster-Structure Action Film, Cale would probably be at least two different people, but that's what makes this a contemporary gloss, or whatever.
This percolates: the film ends up talking an alarmingly long time to ramp up the action, in fact, and the opening sequences where we get to know the characters are all deeply tedious and stretched-out (though it's better than the utterly atrocious parody of human behavior and geopolitical illiteracy that open Olympus Has Fallen) - also a feature of the '90s action film, though probably not one being copied on purpose - feel like they're never going to end when we finally get to the point that a group of rabid militants led by ex-CIA operative Stenz (Jason Clarke), raging against the president for a whole host of reasons, execute a complicated plot to take over the White House. Cale and Emily happen to be on a White House tour at that exact time, and circumstances play out such that the Secret Service agent-in-charge Martin Walker (James Woods) loses track of his charge, and it falls solely to the isolated Cale to protect President James Sawyer (Jamie Foxx) through the violence and mayhem that play out through the rest of a very bad day, as it turns out that this was all ultimately driven by the ire of the military-industrial complex over the president's attempt to bring about peace in the Middle East by removing all U.S. forces from the region.
Which is the next '90s element fallen into place: White House Down is emphatically proud to be a liberal message movie (though one where the President can brightly point out that removing troops is just for theater, because all the actual killing is and will continue to be done by drones, and this is not perceived as a problem), with the villains all being explicitly tied to right-wing ideologies. It used to be very much the case that real-world domestic politics informed popcorn movies, and not even that long ago; all sorts of movies in all sorts of genres used to openly align themselves with (usually) Democratic or (much less often) Republican concerns, though mostly at a superficial level. The last decade and change have witnessed the two-party divide in the U.S. turning unusually bitter, while an explosion in the world cinema market has made it desirable for every halfway expensive movie to play for all audiences of all countries, and both of these have tended to suck the real-world politics out of every major film; but along come Emmerich and Vanderbilt, cheerfully sliming Republicans while making their obvious Barack Obama analogue an all-around terrific guy, whose deeply-held pacifism doesn't keep him from being an action hero.
None of which has a damn thing to do with the film's quality, though certainly, the fact that a movie about how the bad guys resist the peace process should be so free and easy with piling on the violent but sanitary deaths of a shitload of extras is an irony totally lost on the filmmakers, and you needn't have any more knowledge of realpolitik than you can glean from a glance of the front page of the New York Times to understand why the actions of, basically, every character but Cale make absolutely no damn sense (especially the two "real" villains above Stenz.
The problem with White House Down, you see, is not one of plausibility, ideology, or political messiness: it's that the film is contrived and dumb, the action lead-footed and CGI-addicted in all the very worst ways (it plainly cost more than Olympus, but that comes at the price of being bloated and having logy action). The last characteristically '90s touch in Vanderbilt's screenplay is the howlingly bad dialogue, which veers between crappy exposition (though in one delightful moment, a character tersely cuts off another for saying something they both already know) and grueling quips, that plod off the actors' tongues as if nobody involved had ever actually encountered humor, though several of them had at least heard about it (for Tatum, after a year of successes as a light-touch pseudocomic actor, this is particularly disappointing, and prove if it was needed that he should be prevented from making action movies.
Worse still, it's boring, taking too much time out to establish a geopolitical worldview that makes no sense and doesn't lend any credence to the action; while that action itself is dully pedestrian, with one of the cutting-edge sparkle of Independence Day (which is name-dropped) or the flat-out fucking weirdness of 2012. Lesser action movies built around more heinously unconvincing characters are released every single summer, but White House Down is still a big slab of tedium in its own right, and its chief merit as an action film in 2013 is that it has been cut according to a much more sedate rhythm than most of them. In terms of being in the leastways exhilarating, though, nothing of the sort. It's just braying and tepid and the promise that it was going to be a fun buddy action picture falls apart on the particularly empty-headed performances of Tatum and Foxx, draining the last trace of humanity from a movie that had very little to spare in the first place. And so it's all just so many noisy moments stitched together indifferently, with only the general raucousness of the picture clueing us in that any of this is meant to be entertaining.
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