Every generation deserves a "John McCLane" to call its own, and as aging Bruce Willis wisecracks his way through a series of lame Die Hard sequels, the Millennials get theirs with Channing Tatum as John Cale in White House Down. A director who knows a thing or two about blowing up the Oval Office, Roland Emmerich's unabashedly fun throwback delivers whiz-bang action that never feels compromised by the PG-13 rating, and features an expert cast of character players firing on all cylinders.
Dejected after being turned down for a position with the Secret Service, Capitol policeman John Cale (Tatum) is taking his daughter Emily (Joey King) on a tour of the White House when a powerful explosion rips through the building, sparking mass chaos. When the smoke clears, Cale learns that a heavily armed paramilitary group has taken control of the White House. In the race to find Emily, he bravely rescues President Sawyer (Jamie Foxx) from the ruthless rebels, and attempts to guide him to safety. As news of the attack creates mass panic and fear of total governmental collapse, the fate of Cale's daughter, the Commander in Chief, and perhaps the entire nation rest in his willingness to fight back against the rebels who have brought the most powerful nation on the planet to its knees.
If the above synopsis seems somewhat sparse, frustrated spoiler-hounds can thank White House Down screenwriter James Vanderbilt (The Rundown, Zodiac, The Amazing Spider-Man), because half the fun of watching this high-stakes action opus is attempting to keep pace with all the curveballs he throws into the plot. Using dialogue and subtle character beats to clue us in about precisely why things are unfolding the way they are, Vanderbilt also seems to delight in playing sleight of hand with his colorful cast of characters. With supporting turns from such talents as Maggie Gyllenhaal, James Woods, Richard Jenkins, Jason Clarke, Lance Reddick, Jake Weber, Jimmi Simpson, and Matt Craven, he's got the talent to pull off such an ambitious feat as well. True, White House Down is, for the most part, your typical siege film, but it's one in which the winning combination of writing and onscreen talent effectively keep us locked into the action. As the stakes get higher we're never quite sure who's being motivated by what, and ultimately we become so immersed in the action that we just sit back and try to soak it all in. All the while, Vanderbilt smartly disburses a non-stop barrage of one-liners amongst the cast, playfully subverting the commonly held standard that the star gets all of the zingers.
Little of this would amount to much in the hands of an incompetent director, but Emmerich is obviously a storyteller who's comfortable working on such a sprawling canvas, and as a result it all coalesces in a near-perfect popcorn flick. Whether riding the wave of panic that follows the initial explosion, thrusting us into a thrilling car chase on the White House lawn, or ratcheting up the tension as a trio of Black Hawks blast through the streets of Washington, D.C, Emmerich rarely falters in delivering a thrill -- and thankfully does so in a way that keeps the mood light, despite the mayhem. In a post-9/11 society, there are times when it feels that big-budget action filmmakers are forcing us relive the horrors of that fateful day time and again (The Dark Knight Rises and, more recently, Man of Steel). What Emmerich and Vanderbilt opt for instead is pure, unadulterated escapism. Despite the high stakes, this feels like a movie that could have been made in the 1990s, before the dark shadow of fatalism had yet to be cast. It's a refreshing approach, and though early references to Al Qaeda place the film in a clear cultural context, it's one that pays respect to our current condition without obsessing over it. In truth, the plot of White House Down seems more informed by President Eisenhower's cautionary 1961 speech on the dangers of the military-industrial complex than by the perpetual War on Terror; while it would be far-fetched to call White House Down a "smart" action movie, at least it doesn't come off as completely brain dead.
Meanwhile, much like Bruce Willis in 1988, Channing Tatum displays an effortless blend of confident charm and sweaty heroics as John Cale, a father and former soldier whose bravery has obviously been inherited by his moody 11-year-old daughter, despite the fact that he was deployed in Afghanistan for much of her childhood. Cale is the precisely kind of underdog hero that audiences love to root for, and Tatum plays him with pitch-perfect precision. The same can also be said of Jamie Foxx's President Sawyer, a principled Commander in Chief who knows the difference between a politician and a leader, but whose belief in peace doesn't prevent him from picking up a rocket launcher when the time is right. Foxx gets a few of the film's best lines, including but not limited to one of the most satisfying PG-13 F-bombs ever delivered. Perhaps less satisfying than that expertly placed profanity, but equally effective, is the score composed by Thomas Wander and Harald Kloser, a commanding collection of musical cues that swells and wavers in all the right places -- just another of the many factors that make White House Down the kind of thrilling, brazenly fun action blockbuster that begs to be seen on a big screen, in a crowded theater.