Roger Ebert once coined a moniker for a specific type of action picture, called the Bruised Forearm Movie, a film that kept building upon its own premise and spectacle until the forearm of one’s seatmate was bruised from the experience. The great critic died only two months before White House Down was released in June 2013, but one can imagine or hope that he would have gotten an enormous kick out of the film’s particular brand of grandiloquent lunacy. For if any action movie of the past decade could be described as one that builds upon itself in insanely ambitious ways, it was this one, yet the film also had everything working against it.

The director was Roland Emmerich, and this is the type of overtly earnest blockbuster that commonly made him the butt of several jokes—the concept was basically Die Hard in the White House. Not only had we just seen that concept come to life in the easily inferior Olympus Has Fallen three months earlier, a month before that was the fourth (terrible) sequel to the John McClane classic that popularized that plot strategy. On paper, there did not seem to be anything special about this iteration of the gimmick, either: Channing Tatum is John Cale, a security officer with ambitions to be on the Secret Service staff of the White House, a man who interferes with terrorist plans to take over the Pennsylvania Ave. residence ahead of an important cabinet vote.

What the film revealed itself to be proved another of Ebert’s valuable film criticism claims: that the point is not what a film is about but how. In this case, we have a movie that starts as a fairly simple riff on Die Hard and keeps building on that simple premise until the President of the United States is leaning out of his limousine wielding a rocket launcher. The genius is in how this all somehow feels entirely organic within the way James Vanderbilt’s screenplay leaves absolutely nothing to chance. Each insane development is equally hilarious in how ludicrous it is, and (in a twisted way) logical because the lunacy has focus and purpose. Only a director like Emmerich, popular for movies that set up disaster scenarios and then build on them toward a big and brash climax, could make a movie that uses its gargantuan size to critique its director’s style.

This crazy ambition is an apparent in a key moment when the plots of this film and Olympus Has Fallen truly intersect: the president’s evacuation to his bunker, at which point the inside man is revealed and the hero must intervene. In the earlier film, that was the entire trajectory of the plot. In Emmerich’s, it takes all of two minutes to resolve itself, with Cale saving President James Sawyer (Jamie Foxx) from being held captive by turncoat chief of security Martin Walker (a deliciously slimy James Woods, playing what may well be a version of himself with relish). It’s just a throwaway plot point here, because Walker’s plan extends far beyond hiring a bunch of mercenaries and demanding a nine-figure sum from the Federal Reserve as ransom.

His plan, which is eventually discovered to be shared by a mysterious benefactor whose identity is a genuine last-gasp surprise, basically has no end game, but the stages are the bread-and-butter of the screenplay. It begins with the incursion, with Walker’s mercenaries (led by Jason Clarke’s dead-eyed Stenz) posing as repairmen working in the presidential theater, and continues with the taking of hostages, including Cale and his daughter Emily (Joey King) while the two are enjoying a tour of the White House residence. Plans to thwart the domestic terrorists consistently go awry, mostly because the mercenaries are smart, cunning and genuinely forward-thinking, even aside from the inside help they have received.

The heroes are as smart as they can be in this situation, too. Circumstances separate Cale and Emily, leaving the latter (who runs a YouTube channel) to help the bunkered-down administration officials — including Maggie Gyllenhaal as Walker’s Deputy and Lance Reddick as the Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs — identify the terrorists and televise their faces through her social media following. Cale and Sawyer team up to evade the mercenaries, a plan that temporarily goes wrong when a large explosion causes multiple constitutional crises.

Meanwhile, the vice president is on Air Force One, and the Speaker of the House (Richard Jenkins), Cale’s client, keeps mucking things up on the ground. If the film’s bread and butter are the action sequences, then Emmerich’s apparent M.O. is to keep upping the stakes, from the way the NORAD missile launch system is used to enact the 25th Amendment in a way that will favor that mysterious benefactor at the right time, to how the eventual insanity of everything going on leads the vice chairman to proclaim to an acting president, “We’ll have World War III in the next 10 minutes unless you level the White House,” to what leads to that moment with the rocket launcher during an “all-out war on the White House lawn.”

Emmerich and Vanderbilt offer absolutely no reason to take any of this seriously, but there is also a twisted and absurdly amusing logic to how it all plays out. Not for nothing, the production values here are also impressive — the intricate production design that recreates the White House and its many rooms and hidden passageways and the tunnels below (the ones used by John F. Kennedy to smuggle in Marilyn Monroe) and Anna Foerster’s reverent cinematography that amusingly reflects Lincoln in the way heavenly light douses the faces of the characters. White House Down is a deeply misunderstood, should-have-been blockbuster, amounting to several barrels of inventive fun many times over.

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