The finest scene in White House Down takes place roughly halfway through the film. It is a sequence in which Wannabe Secret Service Agent Channing Tatum drives a massive black SUV across the White House lawn—tearing up turf, fishtailing, doing doughnuts. Agent Chatum’s black SUV is being chased by several other black SUVs, these ones with bad guys leaning out the windows, shooting machine guns. Meanwhile, President Jamie Foxx fumbles around the first SUV, trying to help. “Jackpot!” President Joxx finally exclaims, discovering a rocket launcher behind the backseat. “Yeah! That’s what I’m talkin’ about!” cheers Chatum, and as Joxx prepares to fire out the back window (“Hold it with two hands, Mr. President!”), Chatum does some more fancy driving. One explosion later, Joxx leans forward, empty-handed. “I lost the rocket launcher,” he says sadly. “You lost—how do you lose a rocket launcher?!” Chatum shouts.
But do not be concerned: While this president and his protector come from different worlds, a beautiful, powerful bond is growing between them.
Things do not start out so simply: While Joxx is champing away on Nicorette and basically being the totally awesome Obama who only appears during elections, Chatum is merely a bodyguard for Speaker of the House Raphelson (Richard Jenkins). Mired in debt, a disappointment to his young daughter Emily (Joey King), and having flunked his Secret Service job interview with Agent Carol Finnerty (Maggie Gyllenhaal), the least Chatum can do to make his daughter happy is take her on a tour of the White House. But then, domestic terrorists take over the White House! Joxx is imprisoned in his safe room! Emily is endangered! And Chatum is stuck in the middle like a Stealers Wheel.
Will Emily prove herself precocious and brave? Will Speaker Raphelson and Agent Finnerty do their best in an impossible situation? Will Chatum risk his life to save his daughter and his president? I urge you to not ask questions to which you already know answers.
But here is something I doubt you know: Of the incalculable number of films that have ripped off Die Hard (including Die Hard 2, 3, 4, and 5), perhaps no film has captured its tone so well as White House Down (even Chatum’s shirt looks as if it’s from the John McClane Collection). The banter-crammed script, by James Vanderbilt (Zodiac, The Rundown, The Amazing Spider-Man), not only riffs on everything great and stupid about action movies, but also, believe it or not, features at least one strong, capable, independent character who also happens to be a woman. I should also note that director Roland Emmerich is as endearingly/annoyingly disaster-prone as ever; here, at least, he balances that scale better than he has since, I don’t know, Independence Day? Ranking Emmerich’s filmography as it veers from Stargate to Godzilla to The Day After Tomorrow is a dangerous game; I shall not play it.
But I will say this: White House Down is both funnier and better than you expect. The fact that we all love Channing Tatum now is one of our society’s better decisions. Jamie Foxx has the foresight to put on a pair of Jordans before going off to kill bad guys. This is a film about decisions like that. And freedom. And family. And BFFs.