White House Down is too gutless to be truly outrageous or truly memorable. Director Roland Emmerich takes a loopy premise that’s already been filmed earlier this year (remember Olympus Has Fallen?), enlists a bunch of actors more than capable of rising beneath that premise’s inherent vulgarity, and proceeds to strand them for long stretches of time with little to do besides play hide-and-seek in a labyrinthine, booby-trapped presidential castle that, during daylight hours, emanates the same seductive golden glow as a Game of Thrones whorehouse.
It didn’t have to turn out that way. Early in White House Down, there’s a funny scene that promises better things. In it, an Army veteran turned Capitol policeman with the improbable name of John Cale (Channing Tatum) verbally accosts and then threatens a squirrel trying to hijack a birdhouse. For the lead actor in a potential summer blockbuster, Cale’s name doesn’t look any different from any other two-syllable lunkhead badge.
For music fans, though, the chance to goof on Cale’s name is too good to be true. Unfortunately, the running joke in the movie is not that anyone ever cracks wise about “Venus in Furs” or Paris 1919, but that nobody ever believes it’s him whenever he calls (“John Cale is on the line.” “Cale? John Cale?”).
Cale ends up taking his 11-year-old daughter Emily (Joey King) to the White House for the day, because he’s being interviewed for a job with the Secret Service. Plus, his daughter is, even more improbably, a hardcore political junkie. Soon, though, Cale winds up protecting President Ray Charles, I mean, James Sawyer (Jamie Foxx), whose life is imperiled when rogue domestic terrorists hijack his home and throw the nation into chaos.
Sounds like a solid setup for bravado and explosions, doesn’t it? But it isn’t. Although White House Down’s middle 90 minutes are packed with incidents and missions designed to amplify tension, they start to drift off and disconnect. It’s as though the filmmakers are aiming for something that’s best appreciated when it’s stumbled upon during an afternoon of channel-surfing.
(Since basic cable is doubtless where this film is headed, maybe this meandering is part of a larger marketing strategy.) Decent actors like James Woods, Richard Jenkins, and the sublimely oily Jimmi Simpson stand their ground while the plot creaks along.
There are explosions along the way. But aside from a couple of nicely framed images of destruction and a splash of Brechtian meta-commentary when a White House tour guide refers to Emmerich’s 1996 blockbuster Independence Day, the filmmaking style is nondescript.
For a while, even the one promise the film absolutely had to keep — one that involves an antique watch the president wears over his heart and a stray bullet — seems destined to go unfulfilled. But even when White House Down keeps that promise during its kitchen-sink final 30 minutes, it inspires little more than the single snort of the weakly entertained.
White House Down