In his Hollywood Reporter review of Roland Emmerich‘s White House Down (Sony, 6.28), David Rooney says that a Keystone Cops car-chase sequence in which the presidential limo and some bad guy pursuers go tear-assing around the White House south lawn with chunks of turf flying high…Rooney says this scene is “played partly for laughs.” The word “partly” tells me all I need to know about Rooney’s understanding of this self-mocking action slapstick satire. On one level he seems to get WHD but on another level he doesn’t. Or at least, not in the way the crowd did last night at an AMC Lincoln Square promotional screening (which culminated with a real-life slapdown brawl between four 20something women who’d been mouthing off at each other). WHD isn’t entirely played for laughs, but the tonal overlap between it and the Marx Brothers‘ Duck Soup is not, in my view, incidental or unintended.
There I was in an aisle seat on row six, clapping, whoo-whooing and yaw-hawing in the midst of a crowd that was doing the same. You had to be there but it was infectious. They got it.
However Rooney and Variety‘s Scott Foundas are processing this film, it is definitely…okay, mostly a cartoonish, bombastic, eye-winking smartass slapstick spoof of itself and the 25 year-old Die Hard genre. It is off-the-charts, Wile E. Coyote ludicrous, but I laughed out loud a good 15 or 20 times. It’s a hoot and a howl. How could anyone report otherwise? A critic friend told me the other day that WHD “is no better than Olympus Has Fallen.” It is not only dead obvious that Emmerich’s film is a far more polished, carefully measured and sophisticated effort than the cheesily earnest, bargain-basement Olympus. It also represents, I feel (and tell me I’m full of shit if you’re so inclined), a close-to-seminal redefining of the Die Hard genre.
Yes, the series has become more and more cartoonishly absurd over the years, but the tried-and-true “smirking attitude mixed with blue-chip, power-punch realism” formula that characterized John McTiernan‘s 1988 Die Hard is pretty much completely gone now. Emmerich has taken things into a mixed but largely surreal realm — dark slapstick comedy that gets more and more pronounced after the first 30 minutes but which doesn’t entirely announce “this is an action buddy goof-ass comedy” because it’s also adhering to classic button-pushing bullshit with classic DH-brand traits, themes and storylines (likably flawed hero redeemed by exceptional heroism, blah blah).
The key characteristic is that once it kicks into gear WHD is so chaotically nuts and self-lampooning with every actor’s performance, from Channing Tatum‘s hero (best perf he’s ever given and with the best haircut and hair color he’s ever had) to Jamie Foxx‘s U.S. President to Jason Clarke‘s terrorist baddy and James Woods‘ cynically sardonic Secret Service chief, all but breaking the fourth wall and saying to the audience “where else can we go, guys? Think about it. You haven’t taken this shit half-seriously for 20 years and we can’t just keep piling on bigger and more explosive action sequences….we have to take it into a baldly comedic meta realm.”
The CG helicopters in White House Down really look like CG helicopters. They look like fucking CG toys. Along with the missiles and jets and 747s and other flying craft, which we keep seeing over and over. I wonder if the CG is intended to look primitive in order to ironically emphasize the “air quote” wink-wink fakeness, but if the outfit they hired just couldn’t make it look real on the budget they had. All I know is that the almost Pixar-y animated look fits in with the general cartoony vibe.
You’re going to ask “so where’s the comedy?” during the first 25 to 30 minutes, which are played fairly straight, or at least “straight” according to the way this sort of film thinks and behaves. All I’m telling you is “just wait.”
If there’s a breakout star in this thing (apart from Emmerich breaking out as a comedy director — the new Hal Roach), it’s 12 year-old Joey King, who plays Tatum’s daughter. She’s got the conviction, the sad eyes, the technique, the soul. She’s the new Chloe Moretz, I’m telling you.