White House Down is a glorious return to the days when action movies could be fun without ruining everyone’s afternoon with sulky anti-heroes and uncomfortable subtext, unless you count unapologetically aggrandizing President Barack Obama as “uncomfortable subtext.” Jamie Foxx doesn’t officially play the 44th President of the United States, because their names are different and Foxx’s character, President James Sawyer, wears glasses, but hiding your secret identity under a pair of spectacles might as well be code for “He’s Really Superman.”
President James Sawyer is on the precipice of a landmark Middle East peace treaty, and old white politicians don’t want none of that, so they stage a terrorist takeover of the White House so perfectly conceived that only a wannabe Secret Service agent and his daughter’s camera phone could possibly take them down. Channing Tatum and Joey King play John and Emily Cale, who were taking the White House tour when the fit hit the shan. They get separated and save the day through military training and the power of YouTube. John teams up with the President to shoot the bad guys with guns, and Emily uploads spy footage to the internet that undermines the villains’ evil plot, and somehow manages to avoid being annoying as hell in the process.
Director Roland Emmerich takes a break from blowing up the entire world (and completely blowing Anonymous) to direct this Die Hard knock-off without shame, and he’s perfectly suited to the material, transforming a concept that Olympus Has Fallen made gruff and violent into an over the top crowd-pleaser. White House Down finds the presidential limousine spinning donuts on the White House lawn, chased by another limousine that just happens to have a mini-gun mounted on the back, while a crowd of onlookers onlooks, and a tank impatiently waits to fire at anything – anything – because Roland Emmerich gets bored easily. By this point in Olympus Has Fallen Gerard Butler was stabbing people in the head, and that is all well and good too, but suffice it to say that White House Down is the “fun” version of “Die Hard in the White House.”
Roland Emmerich also has an affinity for sprawling ensemble casts, and brings to White House Down a gaggle of character actors and overqualified stars to imbue his delightful explosion fest with an unreasonable air of dignity. James Woods plays the cake-eating bad guy, Jason Clarke plays the bad guy who can’t eat cake because he’s diabetic, Maggie Gyllenhaal plays the Secret Service Agent who spends the whole movie on her cell phone, and Richard Jenkins plays the Speaker of the House who is probably more important than he looks because he’s played by Richard Jenkins. And they all seem to be having a good time.
Remember a good time? There was a era when summer movies promised a good time above all: a mini-vacation in an air-conditioned theater, complete with a trip to a fantasy world where everything is awesome, everyone is more attractive than they are in your local neighborhood, and the bad guys get what they deserve and the good guys manage to not only save the day but – screw it! – usher in world peace at the lost possible second. White House Down is that rare, old-fashioned summer movie that delivers on those promises with a beautifully filmed adventure and lovable characters, memorable action sequences and a genuinely funny sense of humor.
This may in fact be the Die Hard of Die Hard knock-offs. While Die Hard reinvigorated the action genre by taking nonsensical “Badass Cinema” clichés and treating them realistically, White House Down reinvigorates the Die Hard genre by putting all the nonsense back in without sacrificing character in the process. It is old school and yet it somehow feels fresh and clean. White House Down had me squealing with delight over how ecstatically nuts it was, and how neatly constructed and lovingly filmed a movie like this could be. It’s one of those ridiculous movies that has absolutely no right to be this entertaining, and I for one refuse to complain about it.