WHILE HOLLYWOOD may have hit a home run with Much Ado, Tinseltown still has an appetite problem. Look no further than Man of Steel and Star Trek Into Darkness, two of the most significant action releases of the year, and you’ll see for yourself. In the midst of each movie’s ambitious, anarchic climax, there’s stunning lack of empathy toward innocent lives. Whole cities are leveled. Millions die. And we’re still expected to cheer when the good guy prevails in the end. The bigger action gets, the more tempting it becomes to sacrifice emotion for explosions.
Blame Roland Emmerich. As the godfather of the modern disaster movie, he’s indirectly responsible for popularizing this sort of mass, on-screen destruction. Which is why his latest action blockbuster, White House Down, is so perplexing.
An absurd, feverish vision of what might happen if right-wing militants assaulted D.C. in a world defined by tropes, White House Down is set almost entirely within 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. John Cale (Channing Tatum), an aspiring Secret Service agent, is inside when they take over. Naturally, he becomes the last, best hope to save President James Sawyer (Jamie Foxx). It’s Die Hard in the White House, basically. This means that the violence we see is a fraction of Emmerich’s typical city-stomping ways. When Washington’s landmarks explode, his cameras don’t linger. The Capitol is standing one second, and the next it’s a cloud of debris. This isn’t a tasteful thing to do, but it’s not overtly exploitative, either.
White House Down is also Emmerich’s least-serious movie. He embraces the ridiculous premise to great effect, landing jokes in many situations where none are deserved. (They are still, however, appreciated.) Foxx dials back his swagger to play against Tatum’s casual charm, and so the duo works together splendidly. The young Joey King steals scene after scene as Cale’s teenage daughter. Despite groan-worthy dialogue, an unnecessarily intricate plot, and a running time that’s too long for its own good, it’s hard to not enjoy these actors hamming it up. They know this is a silly movie. Everyone does. That’s the attraction.
So, somehow, it’s come to this. Roland Emmerich — Mr. Aliens Blew Up The Empire State Building, Mr. Climate Change Froze The East Coast, Mr. Mayan Freaking Apocalypse — has made the closest thing to a sensible alternative in a field of stomach-churning, self-serious action blockbusters. And he did it by burning down the White House.
Don’t think too hard about that. Just watch and enjoy.