Destruction is Roland Emmerich’s middle name. Well, names actually. After Uncle Des and Auntie Truction. And true to this entirely made-up, entirely preposterous moniker, the German director has proven himself quite the Kaiser of big screen catastrophe over the last two decades or so, via the bombastic blockbuster likes of Independence Day, The Day After Tomorrow and 2012.
With just those three of his movies having grossed a stonking $2.1billion globally, it seems audiences simply can’t get enough of the apocalyptic auteur unleashing his CGI wrecking ball on the world in which we live.
Except it’s not really the world we live in, now is it? Because if Emmerich is renowned for his hyper-expensive depictions of untrammelled devastation then he’s infamous for populating his scenarios with characters so cardboard you’re in perpetual peril of mistaking the actors playing them for rental store standees.
Take White House Down, the new Emmerich opus and already a $150million headache for Sony Pictures’ accountants courtesy of some decidedly limp figures at the US box office. Rarely will you have witnessed a coterie of ostensibly talented actors floundering so crapulously.
As workaholic secret service agent Carol Finnerty, Maggie Gyllenhaal sounds like she’s reading all her lines out of a self-help manual, her already not-unirritating voice wobbling with incredulity at the increasing preposterousness of the statements she’s being forced to repeat. As her buzz-cutted boss Martin Walker, James Woods is less realistic than he is in his recurring Family Guy guest spots.
What about the terrorists, led by Jason Clarke’s Stenz, who capture the eponymous Presidential residence in an all-too-easy coup d’état? Why, they’re like the hired goons from a Dick Tracey comic made flesh – greasy, unclean and buffoonish.
Well, all except for their hacker sidekick Skip Tyler (Jimmi Simpson), who’s as hissy and cranky as the keyboardist from an ‘80s synth-band who’s hoovered up too much toot. To a one, the villains of White House Down are mean, without being in any way, shape or form menacing.
That just leaves our double-act headline attraction. First Channing Tatum as John Cale, a good-looking maverick who farts in the face of authority.
Thick as a safe laden entirely with bricks, Cale also just happens to have been turned down for a job protecting the President AND be taking his daughter (Joey King) on a guided tour of the White House on the VERY DAY said Prez finds himself in dire need of being saved by some passing rugged hunk of rule-breaking manhood.
Jamie Foxx, meanwhile, is that President: James Sawyer, aka the fantasy Obama. Y’know, the one who closed Guantanamo and is about to clinch peace in the Middle East, rather than getting embroiled in a messy argument there, thanks to a skill-o peace plan that even the Iranians are as eager to get behind as a Club 18-30er joining an end-of-the-night conga line.
Actually, Sawyer’s more like some weird gestalt of Obama and George W. Bush, thanks to his appropriation of the sickly homespun whimsy-masked-as-wisdom of the latter.
But if the characters are all predictably cruddy, then even the theoretical banker of all that lovely action can’t rescue the situation.
This time out, the destruction loosed by Emmerich and his collaborators is a masturbatory spunk of terrorist iconography; the real-life tragedy of the Twin Towers filtered through the special effects spectacle of ID4 (itself the subject of a brief in-joke). What horrified America 12 years ago is now to be recreated and relived by cinema-goers, like the sinking of the Titanic or the eruption of Krakatoa.
While the action might be relentless, it also becomes tiresome, with what feels like an epic chunk of screen-time handed over to scenes of terrorists shooting just behind Channing Tatum.
Adding to the irritation are faults such as one of the key late plot points having appeared in the trailer, and the twist being as plainly telegraphed as what a bear’s up to when it vanishes into the woods with a roll of two-ply clutched in its paw.
That the central attack unfolds in the full glare of 21st century 24-hour news media and the very fact that it features politicians as key characters means the politics of White House Down are likely to attract a good deal more comment and discussion than any movie with such a spurious link to reality deserves.
So let’s indulge the silliness and examine those politics. And sure enough, here’s where the third prong of Emmerich’s trident of trademark tics stabs home, as he delivers a dose of US triumphalism almost as hefty as his film’s budget.
17 years ago, the director sold his vision of the States as global saviours in Independence Day and delivered one of the most successful movies of all-time. The relative financial failure of White House Down suggests that nowadays even those seeking the escapism of the multiplex blockbuster have little stomach for such a jaundiced view of the world.
White House Down is released in the UK on 13 September