MOVIE REVIEW: 'White House Down' resists the urge to transform itself into an all-out spoof

While moviegoers took their seats for a sneak preview of "White House Down," a suggestion was projected in large letters onto the billboardlike screen: "Post Your Favorite Line on Twitter. #WHD."

It's hard to imagine the professional cynics and auditioning comedians who frequent at least my parsec of the Twitterverse reacting to such an invitation with anything but scorn. What line would qualify as a "favorite" in this latest ritualized prophecy of action apocalypse and constitutional crisis?

When the president of the United States comments: "Wake me if civilization ends"? When an aide credits her stamina to "caffeine and patriotism, sir"? When a D.C. newscaster enthuses: "Oh my God, U.S. Special Forces are flying over us!" When a startled functionary reports: "The vice president just puked all over the floor of Air Force One"?

It might be when President James Sawyer (Jamie Foxx), grappling with a thug on the floor of the White House, barks: "Get your hands off my Jordans!" POTUS, you see, has traded his dress shoes for sneakers, the better to elude bad guys and play the reluctant action hero while in the protective company of Afghan-war veteran and wannabe Secret Service agent-turned-possible U.S. savior John Cale (Channing Tatum), who shares a name with a founder of the pioneering art-rock band, the Velvet Underground.

This apparently is a coincidence, or surely the filmmakers would have backed the end credits with Velvet Underground's propulsive "White Light/White Heat"-- a title that at least evokes the film's frequent digital fireballs -- instead of an even more inappropriate Rolling Stones song, "Street Fighting Man," which contains lyrics more likely to encourage traitors than federal pensioners ("The time is right for a palace revolution").

In an echo of the spring of 1997, when "Dante's Peak" and "Volcano" promised moviegoers death by lava, and the summer of 1998, when "Deep Impact" and "Armageddon" threatened audiences with extinction via asteroid, "White House Down" arrives a few months after "Olympus Has Fallen," a very similar story about a tough agent-turned-avenger after circumstances trap him inside the White House during an armed assault that -- worst-case scenario -- could escalate into nuclear war.

In both movies, a bright, plucky child also is at large inside the White House. In "Olympus," the kid was the president's son; in "White House Down," the child is the divorced Cale's daughter, Emily (Joey King), a politics nerd who, unlike her peers, idolizes the stars of Capitol Hill, not MTV. Smart and spunky, Emily suggests a potentially more amusing rewrite, in which a rogue urchin does to White House invaders what Macaulay Culkin did to those burglars in "Home Alone."

Unfortunately, despite the inclusion of a slapstick limo chase on the lawn at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave., "White House Down" resists the urge to transform itself into an all-out spoof, which only makes the story's more ridiculous characters -- for example, a villainous geek (Jimmi Simpson) who blasts Beethoven and sucks a Tootsie Roll Pop while hacking into the NORAD launch codes -- especially absurd.

Cale's relationship with his daughter is perhaps the most hackneyed aspect of a script (credited to James Vanderbilt) groaning with domestic as well as action-conspiracy cliches. (Yes, Cale missed his daughter's talent show!) Used to be, nuclear annihilation was enough of a threat to motivate a thriller; now, filmmakers apparently believe audiences won't really care if a hero thwarts World War III unless he also regains the trust and respect of his child.

Rated PG-13, "White House Down" is plenty violent but less gleefully brutal than its R-rated predecessor. Directed by Roland Emmerich, who famously destroyed the White House almost two decades ago in "Independence Day" (this time, he only blows up the U.S. Capitol dome), the movie is more "mainstream" than "Olympus Has Fallen," which was so over the top and simple-minded in its action agenda that it recalled Chuck Norris' heyday at Cannon Films.

In "White House Down," an evildoer (Jason Clarke, who tortured rather than aided terrorists in "Zero Dark Thirty") demonstrates his nastiness by firing a gratuitous bullet into a famous portrait of George Washington; in "Olympus Has Fallen," a piece of presidential art is mistreated by the hero, not the villain, when brutish hero Gerard Butler crushes a bad guy's skull with a handy bust of Lincoln.

Thank goodness for Tatum's casual, canny, meathead charm. He makes John Cale a likable figure, even if it's Foxx's leader of the free world who gets most of the laugh lines. Relatively young and attractive, President Sawyer is described as an idealistic "academic" with no military experience who has "upset the entire defense industry" with a radical (and unlikely) Mideast peace plan; it's all but impossible not to project President Barack Obama onto Sawyer, but the connection is not quite as

flattering as the filmmakers intended, as the president becomes, in effect, a Tontolike sidekick to the movie's white primary hero. Even so, only the densest viewer won't immediately recognize that the assault on the White House is the work of Arab-hating anti-Sawyer right-wingers, led by James Woods; a parallel subplot, perhaps aimed at non-Democrats in the audience, finds Cale gradually realizing he should have voted for Sawyer, after all.

Like most Emmerich movies (remember the 1998 remake of "Godzilla"?), "White House Down" is moronic, and overstays its welcome. It also suggests that the movie habit can be lethal: The story's white supremacists and warmongers infiltrate the White House disguised as technicians upgrading the president's private screening room. Apparently, smuggling high-powered weapons into the mansion isn't hard as long as they're inside a tool bag.

Rated PG-13 for prolonged sequences of action and violence, including intense gunfire and explosions, some language and a brief sexual image.

(John Beifuss writes for The Commercial Appeal in Memphis. His movie blog is www.TheBloodshotEye.com. Email beifuss@commercialappeal.com.)

(Distributed by Scripps Howard News Service, shns.com)

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