White House Down isn’t the worst movie of the year, but it’s definitely the stupidest. And I don’t mean stupid in a fun way. Stupid movies can be terrifically enjoyable, provided said stupidity doesn’t actively sabotage our efforts to appreciate it. This Is The End? Magnificently stupid… and smart enough to clue us in on the fact. A twinkle in the eye, a wink at how ridiculous it all is, and none of the plot holes in the world can stop you.
Roland Emmerich, unfortunately, simply doesn’t get that all-important element. His films are massively cheesy, over-the-top ridiculous, and have as much in common with basic logic as a five-year-old on a chocolate bender. And without that sense of knowingness, those elements rapidly go from kind-of-fun to supremely annoying. White House Down really goes for broke in the bullshit department, which it compounds with actual honest-to-God pretensions to real-world issues. Its attack-on-the-President plot comes fully recycled from the Die Hard model, a concept copied by Olympus Has Fallen earlier this year. That film had its problems, but at least it thought through some attempts at a solution. This one can’t even manage that much.
So we’re treated to the sight of six rednecks with silencers overcoming the twelve mall cops apparently charged with the President’s safety, who then proceed to enact their nefarious scheme while the assembled armed forces of the mightiest nation in the world tensely wring their hands outside. Napalm, cruise missiles, a phalanx of elite cyber ninjas just waiting for a chance to cut some bad guy throats… they’re all helpless before the bad guys here, who are able to overpower the seat of the government because they have an inside man.
Luckily, we have hunky Channing Tatum to throw a wrench in the bad guy’s schemes. He was applying for a job at the Secret Service the day of the attack, then stayed to take the tour, which both helps him keep the President (Jamie Foxx) safe and puts his precocious daughter (Joey King) in periodic danger from the evil rednecks. From there, we head straight into John McClane land, featuring an endless series of contrived gunfights and imbecilic throwdowns while the villains’ patented Big Plan comes slowly to fruition.
That in and of itself wouldn’t be so bad. Foxx turns up his million-dollar charm in an obvious nod to President Obama, and Tatum has gotten pretty good at convincingly chucking people off of rooftops. The remainder of the cast (including James Woods, Maggie Gyllenhaal and Richard Jenkins) sports far too much talent for this kind of work, and had they been tasked with delivering run-of-the-mill Hollywood silliness, they might have made it fly on sheer talent.
This time, however, we have a lot more to deal with. Even excusing the cornball “human moments” that feel as authentic as the Botox injected into whichever studio wonk first came up with them, White House Down demands too much from our goodwill. The plot can’t get over the nagging question not only of how these imbecilic baddies could get so far, but why the assembled U.S. military – which Emmerich shows us right outside the gates – simply refuses to take even the most perfunctory action to stop them. Oh right, there’s hostages, who seem to take precedence even when millions of lives are in danger and serious attempts to behead the government get underway.
Even that doesn’t seem to be enough for Emmerich, who rubs our nose in the stupidity whenever he can. At one point, we’re treated to the sight of Tatum and Foxx spinning donuts on the White House lawn when the bad guys open fire on them with chain guns, while the army stands there on Pennsylvania Ave. doing absolutely nothing. Five minutes later, a single tank moves in to crush the fence. The bad guys take it down with a rocket launcher… and that’s apparently the end of the engagement. Because you know, we don’t have any more tanks.
The film openly flaunts such ridiculousness without any apparent self-awareness. Over and over again. Its overt laziness sabotages what could have been a playful romp, as it first insults our intelligence and then dares us to say something about it. All of that comes on top of a half-assed stab at political messaging, involving the military industrial complex trying to stop a Middle East peace plan. White House Down pays the specifics only the barest lip service, but the not-so-subtle preachiness beneath it represents Hollywood finger-wagging at its worst.
For all that, I don’t really hate this movie. It’s too goofy to generate any serious emotions and we’ll easily survive the foolishness it so proudly displays. It’s just par for the course for Emmerich, who’s grown rich on these exercises and doesn’t look to change his approach any time soon. That didn’t make the experience of sitting through this any more palatable, or prevent the guffaws of disbelief at the hogwash it earnestly presents before us. White House Down can’t find the balance to make its formula work: too self-serious to entertain us and too all-fired absurd to do anything else.