White House Down is already the second movie this year about an attack on the White House. But unlike the earlier film, Olympus Has Fallen, White House Down gives itself a little more room to get silly. While still prone to histrionics, the film has enough self-awareness to keep from taking things too seriously, allowing for moments for levity between all the explosions. And Roland Emmerich’s elegant action direction eschews all the silly tricks of its contemporaries, heightening the insanity. The result is an inherently ridiculous but thoroughly enjoyable action picture.
The president of the United States (Jamie Foxx) has just announced a controversial new policy that will remove all US military presence in the Middle East. Capitol policeman John Cale (Channing Tatum) is taking a tour of the White House with his daughter Emily when the Capitol is suddenly attacked. A paramilitary force quickly takes over the White House. Cale sets out to find his daughter, and ends up finding the president. With the rest of the president's protection detail taken out, it's up to Cale to protect the commander-in-chief and find a way to get him to safety.
Like Olympus Has Fallen, this movie doesn't stray very far from the formula set by Die Hard. If anything, it skews closer to the action classic. Many of the scenes feel like they're directly lifted from the 1988 film, the movie barely bothering to provide a variation on the action. It's not ideal, but it's not terrible either. The formula has proven so resilient over the years for a reason, and the film does ramp it all up to a more ridiculous level, amplifying the scale of the action to absurd proportions.
The film's political content is laughable, and every scene that addresses that stuff feels really awkward. Thankfully, the film largely brushes all that off, keeping much of the banter as silly as the premise deserves. This is, after all, a movie where the president of the United States gets to fire a rocket launcher. The film still has a tendency to lapse into histrionics, however, and the melodramatic score tends to underline this. It gets pretty incongruous sometimes, the music rising majestically even as things get supremely dumb.
But for the most part, the movie is able to keep it simple, focusing in the immediacy of the action. It benefits from two main stars that really commit to the absurdity. Channing Tatum can be limited as an actor, but his talents are put to pretty good use here. There's an odd vulnerability to the actor, a sense that he's not the most capable guy in the room. It makes the character feel a bit more relatable than your average invincible action hero. And Jamie Foxx is clearly having fun playing the president. He resists the temptation to play a tough guy and really lets his inner bureaucrat show.
White House Down may just be a Die Hard clone in the end, right down to its tank top-sporting hero named “John.” But it is an extremely competent Die Hard clone. It really understands how the formula works, and is self-aware enough not to take itself too seriously. Emmerich happens to be the perfect director for such a faithful homage, his straightforward, no-nonsense direction keeping the action squarely in the middle of the frame, capturing every last inch of whatever explosion happens to be on screen. The politics may be hard to swallow, but the rest of the movie is a breeze.