“White House Down,” the latest conflagration from that master blaster Roland Emmerich, is as demented and entertaining as promised, and a little less idiotic than feared. Once again, for reasons best left to him and his therapist, he has created a pop diversion about the near-destruction of the world. Maybe he just likes playing with matches. Yet as you watch the White House go up in flames — an image that doesn’t provoke the same shock or giggles that it did in his 1996 flick, “Independence Day” — you may wonder if every time he blows or burns something up, Mr. Emmerich, who was born in Germany in 1955, is compulsively repeating a historical trauma.
Mr. Tatum in "White House Down."
Then again, nothing says summer studio fun like annihilating violence. That, at any rate, seems to be one lesson of recent movies like “Star Trek Into Darkness,” “Man of Steel,” “World War Z” and the bromantic “This Is the End,” which bank on viewers grooving on the spectacle of their symbolic demise: bang, bang — we’re all dead. The stakes don’t look initially global when, soon after Mr. Emmerich’s movie opens, the White House is overwhelmed by heavily armed men taking orders from a boilerplate maniac. (Scan the credits to guess who it is.) Like other bug-eyed brethren in patriotism, from Brig. Gen. Jack D. Ripper in “Dr. Strangelove” to Gen. James Mattoon Scott in “Seven Days in May,” this latest crazy believes that he can do better than the president.
That the commander in chief, James Sawyer (Jamie Foxx, serviceable), is African-American adds a frisson, as does the conceit that he needs saving because he has a workable peace plan for the Middle East, and powerful business interests don’t want to keep either him or hope alive. His savior — and, as the movie industry clearly hopes, that of the big-screen spectacle — is a white working-class hero, John Cale (Channing Tatum). In one of those outrageous twists on which action movies are built, John is serendipitously accompanying his cute adolescent scold, Emily (Joey King), on a tour through the White House at the very moment it’s overrun. In between gunshots and explosions, she pretends that her father isn’t the coolest ever while he races to save life as we know it.
James Vanderbilt’s amusingly topical screenplay sets the stage — with, among other details, a new, cooperative Iranian president and a former intelligence whiz gone off the reservation — that Mr. Emmerich rapidly begins to demolish. There’s a satisfying bluntness to his expediency that complements Mr. Tatum’s guileless on-screen persona as he assumes the mantle, or rather the sweat-stained white tank top, once worn by Bruce Willis. Mr. Tatum not only wears the same shirt (passed down from Marlon Brando), but he also shares the first name and Everyman earthiness that turned Mr. Willis into a movie star with “Die Hard.” (Each character has a curly haired woman on the sidelines.) After years of importing British and Australian he-men, Hollywood has another homegrown hero.
At 33, Mr. Tatum has excellent timing — Mr. Willis is 58; Brad Pitt, 49; Will Smith, 44 — which is matched by that of his character, who’s also interviewing for a Secret Service job with a snobby skeptic (Maggie Gyllenhaal). Well, he shows her as he swats away villainy in a White House that’s conveniently short of effective guards and surveillance cameras and packed with valuable team players like James Woods, Richard Jenkins, Lance Reddick and the invaluable slow-boiler Jason Clarke. Whether Mr. Tatum is upstaging these inveterate scene savers and stealers or taking the presidential limousine out for a spin on the Great Lawn for a demolition derby that doubles as a Cadillac commercial, he sells the role and himself with athletic grace and a star’s self-assured charm.
Mr. Emmerich, meanwhile, peddles the rest of the goods handily. He makes the opening siege unsettling enough to grab your attention and then, once he has it, begins folding in lighter moments — one-liners, cartoonish bits of business, laughably impossible situations and stunts — that ensure that at least this American collapse doesn’t end up feeling too heavy. At times his unabashed maximalist approach evokes the salesmanship of the television marketing genius Ron Popeil, who liked to cap his overexcited pitches with the tagline “But wait — there’s more!” Like the Ronco Veg-O-Matic, “White House Down” delivers more: more guns, bigger guns, rocket-propelled grenades, surface-to-air missiles, battle tanks, Black Hawk helicopters, nuclear-armed submarines and, when the dust settles, the customary, climaxing fist-to-gut slugfest.
As with many industrial entertainments of this type, “White House Down” ritualistically gestures toward peace even as the bodies bloodlessly fall. It’s as disingenuous as you might expect, but it’s also a live-action cartoon — an Extreme Road Runner distraction that is finally as American as apple pie with a Velveeta wedge. Partly because the story is largely contained within the White House and its environs, and even with those nukes pointing at Armageddon, there’s a limit to how much large-scale damage Mr. Emmerich can mount. The spatial confines help keep the stakes and the vibe somewhat more intimate than in many action flicks, which helps save him from indulging in one of those numbing finales that plague the genre. He gives it plenty of pow, while Mr. Tatum provides the pulse.