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Review: ‘White House Down’ is a silly throwback

Published: Thursday, June 27, 2013 5:30 a.m. CDT

Staggeringly implausible, cartoonishly comical, Roland Emmerich’s “White House Down” is refreshingly dumb.

Refreshing because carefree action absurdity, once the province of the summer cinema, is on the outs. Solemnity – even for caped, flying men in tight-fitting trousers – is in.

But there’s an inarguable, senseless pleasure in watching Jamie Foxx, as the president of the United States, kicking a terrorist and shouting: “Get your hands off my Jordans!” Hail to the chief, indeed.

“White House Down” follows Antoine Fuqua’s “Olympus Has Fallen,” released in March, as the second movie this year to imagine an assault on 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. The two films are very similarly plotted, but “White House Down” is notably less serious, more content to loosen the strings and acknowledge its own inherent preposterousness.

This becomes particularly crystalized somewhere around the time Foxx’s President James Sawyer and his rescuer, Channing Tatum’s wannabe secret service agent, are careening across the White House lawn in the president’s limo while terrorists shoot in pursuit. Onlookers behind a fence – media, regular people, the Army – merely gape in awe, as if frozen by the idiocy.

“White House Down” is most entertaining when it’s a simple, ludicrous buddy movie, with Tatum and Foxx fleeing across the White House grounds, dropping one-liners as they go, eluding a gang of assailants led by a bitter turncoat (James Woods) and his ferocious henchmen (including Jason Clarke, swapping sides in the war on terror following “Zero Dark Thirty”).

This is a kind of coronation for Tatum as a movie star. He’s now reached the level that he can breeze through a blatantly silly movie and look none the worse for it. He’s John Cale (not to be confused with the Velvet Underground musician, although, how could you?), a Silver Star veteran of Afghanistan and a police bodyguard to the speaker of the house (Richard Jenkins).

For his Secret Service interview at the White House, he’s brought along his politics-obsessed 11-year-old daughter (the promising Joey King). But it goes poorly, partly because his would-be boss turns out to be an old flame (Maggie Gyllenhaal) who doubts he’s grown up. There’s some reason to believe her, since Cale (in the mold of most action heroes) is an absentee, divorced dad.

It’s an archetype defined by Bruce Willis in “Die Hard,” a movie “White House Down” apes right down to the wife-beater tank top. When the Capitol dome is detonated and the White House invaded, Cale is separated from his daughter and stumbles into the kidnapping of the president. From there, it’s a series of chases through the handsome, recreated halls of the White House, where golden light filters in through venetian blinds but seemingly scant security measures exist.

Emmerich, the director of spectacles like “Independence Day” (a movie he references in “White House Down”) and “2012,” has made blowing up the White House something of a fetish, having already done it in both of those movies. It’s a style of blockbuster that now feels dated, like a ‘90s kind of big-budget moviemaking that depends on explosions, flashes of comedy and star charisma.

The charm of Tatum – toned but goofy – carries the film. Foxx, a more gifted comic actor, is left off-screen for large chunks. His president is a kind of liberal fantasy version of Barrack Obama, boldly removing all troops from the Middle East, thereby sparking the fury of the Beltway’s white power players.

If “White House Down” had pushed the farce further, Emmerich’s overlong romp could have been something special. But the comedy in James Vanderbilt’s screenplay only comes in spurts.

Many of its biggest laughs don’t come when they’re cued up, but at the film’s attempts at emotion. Woods, for example, gravely announces: “Killing Ted Hope was the second hardest thing I’ve had to do in my life.” If stripped of its production value, “White House Down” would make one hysterical off-Broadway one-act.

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