Friday, June 28, 2013

Review: "White House Down"

Director: Roland Emmerich
Runtime: 131 minutes

There have been any number of articles and essays devoted to understanding our fascination with seeing major monuments destroyed for entertainment. Whether the cause of destruction is man made, natural, or extra terrestrial, there's a certain allure in seeing notable builds fall apart, knowing that they'll still be there when we walk out of the theater. Roland Emmerich is one of the few directors out there whose films have covered every aforementioned form of destruction. 

The White House seems to be a particular favorite of his. Aliens destroyed it in Independence Day, and an apocalyptic tidal wave (wielding an aircraft carrier) snuffed it out in 2012. Clearly determined to destroy the Presidential abode in the remaining method (and complete his holy trinity), Mr. Emmerich is back with White House Down, which features all hell breaking loose on the grounds of 1600 Penn. in spectacularly moronic fashion.

After cementing himself as a star in 2012 with 21 Jump Street and Magic Mike, Channing Tatum has finally graduated to the status of action movie leading man. Unfortunately, Emmerich doesn't care to do anything to James Vanderbilt's script in order to give his leading man more to work with. The film puts Tatum front and center at the start, and tasks him with saving President Sawyer (Jamie Foxx) after a paramilitary group attacks the White House. Yet there are times when the action jumps to the various villains and worried government officials, and the action stalls for so long, that Tatum's Cale almost seems like an afterthought. 

Tatum and Foxx are trying to have some fun with their ludicrous material (the Commander in Chief even gets to fire a rocket launcher), but White House Down quickly fails even as an exercise in dumb fun. Fast and Furious 6 set the bar early this summer, as it blended its intentionally and unintentionally funny pieces together to create a non-stop joy ride. Those behind White House Down are clearly trying to hit a similar target in their execution. Unfortunately, Emmerich's film is totally lopsided in favor of moments that are worth laughing at, rather than with. Every cliche and cheesy thing that's been done before shows up at some point, as though Vanderbilt was simply going down a checklist. Sadly, it's a rather long checklist, and the film outstays its welcome and runs on for more than two choppy hours. Where Fast and Furious 6 created an immediately engaging experience out of its brand of escapism, White House Down never comes together to the point that its silliness becomes truly entertaining. 

It's almost tempting to assert that the film is a satire of likeminded films (such as Olympus Has Fallen, with which it shares a basic premise). Unfortunately, this theory is quashed at every conceivable turn. It's all too silly, groan-inducing, and earnest. And even if it is meant to be a satire, it's a satire that fails horribly. Moments that should excite in their insanity (a car chase on the White House lawn) are devoid of legitimate fun or tension. For the most part, it's all just loud (and hilariously complicated in the later stages). Compounding the problem is Emmerich's direction, which smothers his leading men, and ensures that they never have a chance to pop out of the frame like the stars they are. 

The rest of the talented ensemble are simply left standing around from scene to scene chasing that fat paycheck. Maggie Gyllenhaal, as a secret service agent, does her best to lend some variety to scenes that give her little more to do than act concerned. Meanwhile, Richard Jenkins is left stranded in a role that mostly requires him to stand around looking blank. Meanwhile, James Woods and Jason Clarke growl and snarl to little effect as the main villain and his chief henchman. The former is saddled with a nonsensical motivation, while the latter is little more than a generic brute. It's a shame, because, as evidenced by his turn in Zero Dark Thirty, Clarke is capable to doing a lot with limited screen time.

The true stand-out from the cast, if there is one, has to be It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia supporting player Jimmi Simpson as an evil and eccentric master hacker. The role is far from being well-written, yet Simpson's performance makes its mark simply because it has a personality as artificial and cartoonish as the special effects. Watching Simpson prance around, play classical music, and suck lollipops in his newfound lair underneath the West Wing is pure insanity. It's also the closest that White House Down comes to being the sort of lunkheaded entertainment it strives to be. You'll likely laugh quite a bit at the film, but even the abundance of unintentional humor is difficult to recommend when the overall package is this drawn out, empty, and cringe-worthy. 

Grade: D+

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