“White House Down” never quite seems to decide what kind of movie it wants to be, although by firepower alone it qualifies as this summer’s most cartoonishly bombastic exercise in sensory overload (so far). A riotous display of serial explosions, helicopter crashes, car smash-ups, sniper attacks and at least one slap on the face of a winsome little girl, “White House Down” is the kind of celebration of rampant mayhem in which everyone seems to have a rocket launcher — or at least a live hand grenade — at the ready, just in case they need to dispatch a scrum of exceptionally vile and cruel villains.
But “White House Down” also clearly wants to be a lighthearted comedy. At least that seems to be the aim in a film that, in the midst of sadistic violence, throws in jokes and bits of buddy humor as blithely as its protagonists toss those grenades. If cognitive dissonance ensues for an audience unsure whether to laugh or wince, that’s nothing compared to the level of sheer volume — and preposterousness — the film inevitably reaches for with its we-can-top-that finale.
Between all the stuff that goes boom, stars Jamie Foxx and Channing Tatum manage to develop genuine comic chemistry as two men thrown into an apocalyptic cataclysm when the U.S. government suffers a viciously violent coup. As U.S. President James Sawyer, Foxx plays a more bespectacled, less formal version of President Obama, his Nicorette gum and basketball shoes chiming unsubtly with Sawyer’s real-life counterpart. When disaster strikes first at the U.S. Capitol and shortly thereafter at the White House, an aspiring Secret Service agent named John Cale (Tatum) happens to be taking a tour of the latter with his daughter; soon, the men are playing a deadly game of cat-and-mouse, outmaneuvering their shadowy opponents and outgunning inevitable comparisons to “Olympus Has Fallen.”
That film, of course, starred Aaron Eckhart and Gerard Butler in an eerily similar story that, although often just as outlandish, looks in retrospect like a quiet, sophisticated little thriller. “White House Down,” written by James Vanderbilt and directed by Roland Emmerich (who, having also made “Independence Day” and “2012,” clearly has a fetish for destroying 1600 Pennsylvania Ave.), takes perverse glee in putting its human and architectural characters through an increasingly barbaric series of physical punishments, from that shocking blow suffered by a cute, tear-stained child to the Green Room literally going up in flames. (All the while, disas-tourists swarm the South Lawn as if they were clamoring to get into the Easter Egg Roll.)
With effects extravaganzas like “Iron Man 3,” “Star Trek Into Darkness” and “Man of Steel” already in theaters, the carnage of “White House Down” takes on the air of something disposable and utterly meaningless. By the time Sawyer shoulders a rocket-propelled grenade in the limo, the viewer’s reaction is less likely to be surprise than glazed, benumbed indifference.
That stunt occurs in one of the sequences of antic humor — in this case a Keystone Kops car chase — which, despite the tonal strangeness alongside the wanton destruction, prove that Foxx and Tatum are able heirs to the “Lethal Weapon” brand of brothers-in-arms banter. Their shtick is the best stuff in “White House Down,” which could have used more of that kind of leavening. With Hollywood mired in an escalating arms race of brute force and noisy spectacle, well-timed humor can be a potent secret weapon.
PG-13. At area theaters. Contains prolonged sequences of action and violence including intense gunfire and explosions, some profanity and a brief sexual image. 129 minutes.