Amid the summer glut of brainless, overproduced action movies, do we really need a “Die Hard” movie set at 1600 Pennsylvania Av.? Well, yes we do, if it delivers such a jolt of lightning-bolt excitement that your system is still crackling hours later. “White House Down” is wonderfully violent and often laugh-out-loud funny, a shopworn premise resuscitated as a sweaty, rousing, ironic, intense, movie-love-reaffirming free-for-all.
Dateline: Washington, D.C. Channing Tatum is a divorced veteran working as a politician’s bodyguard. He’s a scrapper, but sensitive enough that his spunky preteen daughter (Joey King) can reduce him to a sad-eyed puppy with a few well-placed guilt darts. On the very day he stumbles through a Secret Service job interview, the White House locks down under a terrorist assault. With his daughter inside. And the president, played as an honorable Poindexter by Jamie Foxx.
The demolition derby genre mandates a certain amount of predictability, but Roland “King of Smithereens” Emmerich races us from one sweaty-palmed set piece to the next. Having blown the presidential residence to toothpicks in “Independence Day,” Emmerich turns the East Wing, West Wing and Oval Office into jungle gyms for bravura physical invention.
With the president’s protection force out of commission, Tatum improvs with whatever weapons come to hand. There’s a particularly nice moment in the presidential kitchen involving a toaster swung by the cord. Tatum’s everyman hero isn’t eager to put himself in harm’s way. Before leaping into some daredevil encounter he’ll mutter under his breath, “This is really dumb.” The genius of the piece is that the audience responds, “Yeah. Go for it.”
Tatum has never gravitated to manly-man roles, and here he balances two-fisted acrobatics with his familiar mellow vibe. Foxx, as the bespectacled, Nicorette-chomping chief executive, makes a great sidekick. With one foot firmly planted in the Tom Clancy action-thriller world, the movie flirts with squirrelly deadpan humor in which preposterous stuff happens anyway. By the time the two are racing the presidential limo in circles while trying to aim a rocket launcher at their enemies, you simply have to surrender to the moment’s trashy brilliance.
Screenwriter James Vanderbilt (“Zodiac,” “The Amazing Spider-Man”) realizes there’s nothing less exciting than unrelenting action. He takes a stock story and turns it into an excuse to unleash expertly placed red herrings, whip-smart comic surprises, left-hook plot reversals and a bit of heart.
There are some fine actors here playing characters who surprise us. Emmerich gives Maggie Gyllenhaal, James Woods and Richard Jenkins some nice moments in the spotlight. There are even some extraneous players who open up the story for a few moments to let it breathe. Nicolas Wright is a sneaky delight as a White House tour guide, and Andrew Simms whimpers winningly as a blowhard political commentator caught in the crossfire. Those grace notes add a nice extra dimension to a film that never wastes a moment, while laying waste to every structure on the White House grounds.
You may see “White House Down” as a mindless escapist thriller. Your sister may see it as a raucous comedy. Foreigners may see it as a satire of America as a failed state. But everyone should see it.