White House Down

Given the number of movies released each year (263 in 2012, for example), it’s no wonder that we occasionally get matching movies within a few weeks of each other. Heck, we only have to go back two months for After Earth and Oblivion.

White House Down marks the second “Die Hard at the White House” movie we’ve seen in just the past 14 weeks, following March’s Olympus Has Fallen. (And that doesn’t count the three full decades’ worth of other “Die Hard on a…” movies that have graced theaters.)

There’s no proven formula that determines which of the movies (if either) in a mirror-image pair will win the box office, but if early numbers are any indication, this battle is going to Olympus in a landslide. And though neither will ever be considered anything more than a mindless bit of testosterone-fueled escapism, White House Down is clearly the worse of the two. But it may just be the best worst movie of the year.

The two words that most define White House Down are “Roland” and “Emmerich”– as in Independence Day, 2012, and The Day After Tomorrow. The man never met anything he didn’t want to blow up, destroy, or otherwise annihilate while peppering the goings-on with silly dialogue, absurd plotlines, and over-the-top melodrama. White House Down is no different. Think Armageddon, not Deep Impact.

Here we have D.C. police officer John Cale (Channing Tatum) who happens to be in the White House for a job interview with the Secret Service. He’s a maverick and a loser, and all he needs is one chance to prove his worth. Guess what comes next.

Sure enough, the bad guys begin by blowing the dome off the Capitol, and then run rampant through the White House, picking off security guards and the Secret Service like gnats at a picnic. The violence comes fast and furious, but it almost has a cartoonish quality to it (unlike Olympus’ harrowing 20-minute bloodbath). Think Volcano, not Dante’s Peak.

Of course Cale’s pseudo-estranged young daughter is with him (though they get separated during the siege), and his divorced wife is watching to whole thing unfold on TV, so the themes of family and reconciliation and love figure prominently, and the sap factor gets ratcheted up by the minute. Think Antz, not A Bug’s Life.

There’s also a fair amount of humor along the way, particularly as the President (Jamie Foxx) and Cale navigate shootouts, elevator shafts, and all manner of other mayhem. It’s evident that Emmerich is well aware of the schlock that he’s constructing, and that he doesn’t want us to take it too seriously. Think Friends with Benefits, not No Strings Attached.

The cast of White House Down all seem in on the joke, too. Tatum does his best John McClane impression, while Maggie Gyllenhaal’s Secret Service agent is great in the Sergeant Powell role. Foxx seems to have studied President Obama quite a bit in preparation for this, and James Woods is his haggard old self as the chief of the Secret Service, who’s battling his own demons.

In the end, despite its poor opening weekend, White House Down may actually have more long-term staying power– due to its big-name stars and ramped-up action and melodrama. It’s so bad it just might become a guilty pleasure or, at the very least, a solid classic. Think Top Gun, not Iron Eagle.

3.5/5 stars