Thursday, June 27, 2013

Review: "White House Down"

I think I’ve put my finger on what this summer’s spate of movies has been sorely lacking: fun.

Everything’s so gosh darn dark. Iron Man’s wrestling with his psyche. Superman’s all angsty. Vin Diesel can’t spare a smirk. Heck, the new “Star Trek” flick put “Darkness” in the title. Even the comedies have seemed more a chore than a lark.

Count on Roland Emmerich, the auteur of disaster/action spectacle, to remind us what summer movies should be all about: goofy, cheeky, action-packed and silly. The man who launched his Hollywood career blowing up the White House in “Independence Day” now merely has terrorists invade it in “White House Down.”

And it’s up to one lone lawman to rescue the likable President, perforate the bad guys, save a cute kid and give an inside-man-turned-traitor his comeuppance -- preferably messily.

If this plot sounds overly familiar, that’s because we saw almost the exact same story in this spring’s “Olympus Has Fallen.” Which, come to think of it, was also one of the year’s most enjoyable cinematic jaunts.

Whereas “Olympus” was grim and tight, “Down” is giddy and loose. Emmerich and screenwriter James Vanderbilt infuse plenty of light moments and outright humor into the proceedings. Leads Channing Tatum and Jamie Foxx take these soft pitches and gleefully wallop them over the wall, at times resembling a buddy-comedy duo.

You might think all the hoots would undermine the action sequences. But in acknowledging its own preposterousness, the movie invites us to laugh along with, rather than at, all the loopy plot points.

I’m not saying this is a dumb movie. But it is the sort that asks you to lower your suspension-of-disbelief shields and just go with it. For me, this happened right around the moment Tatum and Foxx were screaming around the White House grounds in the presidential limousine, terrorists chasing them in Hummers outfitted with machine guns, with more bad guys firing RPGs at them from the roof.

Absurd? Over-the-top? Fun as all get-out? Yes to all.

The set-up is that President James M. Sawyer (Foxx) is pushing a Mideast peace plan, and a lot of people are nervous. So when a bunch of mercenaries invade the White House, it seems much more motivated by vengeance than the $400 million in cash they’re demanding.

John Cale (Tatum) is an Army veteran and D.C. police sergeant who’s got a mind to join the Secret Service – mostly to impress his precocious tween daughter, Emily. He takes her to the White House for a tour while he has a job interview – which turns out to be with an old college flame (Maggie Gyllenhaal), who lets him down easy.

Emily is played by Joey King, whose mix of smarts, screen presence and moxie virtually guarantee greats things ahead. In one moment of extreme duress, Emily growls at a gunman, “Get away from me” – quite possibly the gutsiest character moment in the movie.

Michael Murphy plays the vice president, who’s a little overeager to take on the POTUS mantle, while Richard Jenkins is the humbler Speaker of the House, next in line. Jason Stenz is effective as the paramilitary leader, Jimmi Simpson has fun with the over-caffeinated computer hacker role, and Kevin Rankin is memorable as a loathsome skinhead baddie.

I also liked Nicolas Wright as the comic relief, an enthusiastic White House tour guide, and Lane Reddick as the by-the-book military man. James Woods shines as the grizzled Secret Service chief closing out his last week on the job.

If “Olympus Has Fallen” had a distinctive right-wing flavor, it’s hard to ignore an obvious but unobtrusive liberal tilt in “White House Down.” Foxx’s Sawyer is a thinly-veiled Obama substitute, a young academic with a cooler-than-thou attitude, flashy wife and Nicorette gum habit.

At one point Sawyer dons his favorite sneakers during their flight, and when one of the villains grabs his leg the president forcefully delivers a kick and a quip: “Get. Your. Hands. Off. My. Jordans!!”

Say what you will about Emmerich, but the man knows how to do popcorn movies right.

All I know is we’re almost at the year’s halfway point, and if you asked me to name my Top 10 List right now, it would include two ludicrous movies about the White House getting taken over. Hey, fun’s fun.

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