Back in the 1990s, I was a devoted reader of Movieline magazine. In addition to featuring the hilarious Joe Queenan, and sharper profiles of celebs than you’d find in US or Premiere, Movieline had a recurring feature called “Bad Movies We Love.” It’s a self-explanatory concept, as anyone who’s obsessed over The Room or Mommy Dearest can attest. For me, director Roland Emmerich (Independence Day, Godzilla) is our pre-eminent maker of lovable/horrible flicks. His semi-recent stinker 2012 would be a crowning achievement, if not for the fact that Emmerich also made my favorite bad movie of the last 10 years: The Day After Tomorrow. You remember that one? Jake Gyllenhaal and Dennis Quaid battling a hilarious global superstorm and a pack of CGI wolves. My heart leaps when I think about it.
Emmerich is back with White House Down, an absurd, silly, laughable yet somehow still watchable flick about a terrorist attack on the White House. This being an Emmerich movie, White House Down features a tableau of stock characters representing many if not all racial, gender, religious and political stereotypes, all made to speak ham-fisted dialogue while engaging in completely unbelievable chases and gunfights. While not as engagingly bad as Emmerich’s earlier work, there’s still a charm to this dreck that I can’t ignore.
Jamie Foxx stars as President
Obama Sawyer, who’s main character traits are that he’s black and that he’s about to pull all American troops out of the Middle East. This rankles the about-to-retire head of the Secret Service (James Woods in full-on reptile mode), who has made some very personal sacrifices to the War on Terror, and who is launching a plan of his own to make sure the war machine keeps chugging along. In his employ are a team of paramilitary thugs led by Zero Dark Thirty’s Jason Clarke, and they plan to take control of the White House.
Channing Tatum is John Cale, a U.S. Capitol police officer who dreams of joining the Secret Service. Early in the film he interviews with a Secret Service higher-up (Maggie Gyllenhaal) who cuts him down as not having what it takes to join the ranks of the president’s protectors. Tatum spends the next 90 minutes running a decathlon of gunfights, explosions and hand-to-hand combat that tests her assessment. He proves himself a worthy protector, a hell of an armored-limo driver, and a graduate of the John McClane school of crisis management.
There’s also Cale’s daughter (Joey King), who is taking a tour of the White House when Woods’ gang launches its attack and manages to get much of the assault uploaded to YouTube; the Vice President (Michael Murphy), who is in more danger than he realizes; and the Speaker of the House (Richard Jenkins) who sits third in line for the presidency and knows it. None of these characters is anything more than a pawn to be moved around Emmerich’s game board, as the terrorist plot unveils itself and each startling new revelation is more laughable than the next.
I skipped Olympus Has Fallen, the similar flick from earlier this year starring Gerard Butler, so I can’t compare it to White House Down. That said, I can’t imagine it was as gloriously demented as Emmerich’s film, which features the president stabbing a villain with a writing implement while shouting “I choose the pen!” and a young girl with a talent for flag waving that gets to use her extracurricular skill to call off an air strike. These are but two of the many unintentionally funny moments that carry White House Down to its conclusion.
Believe it or not, the acting isn’t terrible. Tatum brings a solid energy to the role of Cale, and Gyllenhaal, Jenkins and Murphy are all believable despite the inherent unbelievability of everything going on around them. Jamie Foxx is fine, though I sensed he knew he was slumming it. (I could almost hear his internal monologue, which went something like: “I was just in Django Unchained, and now I’m doing this shit?!!?”) James Woods is James Woods; enough said.
I am in no way recommending White House Down, but I suspect that one day a few years from now you’ll catch it on a rainy Saturday afternoon on TNT or FX, and after about five minutes you’ll be sucked in, unable to look away and laughing at both the movie and yourself. You might even feel guilty. Don’t. It takes a special kind of talent to produce a film this bad. Roland Emmerich should be proud and ashamed. Which should he feel more? I leave that up to you.