Roland Emmerich’s White House Down is an entertaining throwback to the action blockbusters of the 1990s. Seemingly modeled on Die Hard With A Vengeance, it pitches a wisecracking duo—one a cop, the other a fidgety civilian—against an army of colorful bad guys. There’s a time limit, a convoluted heist, and some wanton destruction of public property. The cop is divorced, wears a wife-beater shirt, and is considered a screw-up by his colleagues; his name is John Cale, which suggests that screenwriter James Vanderbilt is either a big Velvet Underground fan or that he’s three letters and one drinking problem short of an intellectual-property lawsuit.
The twist is that the civilian half of the duo happens to be the president of the United States, an Obama stand-in played by Jamie Foxx; the cop, played by Channing Tatum, is a Capitol police officer who picks the wrong day to show up for an interview with the Secret Service. After a bomb goes off in the Capitol rotunda, Tatum and Foxx find themselves joining forces against a motley band of white supremacists, rogue ex-SEALs, and hammy character actors who have taken the White House hostage as part of a scheme to steal the president’s nuclear launch codes. It’s every bit as silly as it sounds—possibly even sillier.
Yet while White House Down isn’t going to score points for originality, seriousness, or subtlety (Emmerich likes his political messages blunt and loud), it is a lot of fun; if nothing else, Emmerich is a great widescreen showman who knows how to stage mayhem on a grand scale. Compared to something like A Good Day To Die Hard, his compositions and camera movements look downright elegant. (White House Down may be the only big-budget action movie released this year not to feature a single handheld shot or zoom.)
Technically, this marks the third time that Emmerich has obliterated 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue on screen (fourth, counting its implied destruction in The Day After Tomorrow). However, he’s never been this thorough—putting a car chase on the South Lawn, setting fire to the Lincoln Bedroom, blasting holes in FDR’s hand-carved piano, setting off grenades in the Press Briefing Room. All of Emmerich’s movies since Stargate have operated by identifying pop-cultural touchstones and myths (JFK’s fabled secret tunnels serve the same function in this movie as Area 51 did in Independence Day) and then turning their destruction into spectacle. In White House Down, he gets to cut loose on a building where every room and piece of furniture is iconic. He seems to get a kick out of watching them all burn, and the mood—gleeful, deranged, and maybe just a little transgressive—is infectious.