The Towering Inferior, by Bob Connally

17 Jul

As I write this it is 30 years to the day since the release of the definitive shoot ‘em up action movie, Die Hard. Anyone who remembers the period between its release on July 15, 1988 and the arrival of The Matrix 11 years later is well aware of the effect that John McTiernan’s masterpiece (yes, I’m going to use that word) had on action cinema for the next decade. Seemingly every American action movie of the ‘90s was “Die Hard in/on a blank.” Even 1990’s Die Hard 2: Die Harder was a shameless knockoff of its predecessor, only set at an airport. Perhaps this is why putting Die Hard style movies on a plane was such a popular choice (Passenger 57, Executive Decision, Turbulence, Con Air, Air Force One, etc.). There was also a bus (Speed), a ship (Under Siege), a hockey arena (Sudden Death), and even Alcatraz (The Rock), and that doesn’t even come close to naming all of them. So pervasive was this trend that it gave birth to one of my favorite may or may not be true Hollywood stories. It is the tale of a man who sometime during the ‘90s pitched an action film premise as, “It’s like Die Hard…in a building!” Now 30 years later, long after the trend has died we get Skyscraper which is like Die Hard…in a building… A really tall building… thaaaat’s… on fire! Yeah, that’s it!

Truthfully I love many of the aforementioned movies and I have an affinity for action movies in general, when they’re done well. There is nothing quite like a wonderfully executed action sequence and even some of the sillier tropes of action movies can be a lot of fun. Few movies are more entertaining to watch over and over again than Commando. It’s a movie that reminds us that being a big dumb action movie doesn’t have to be a bad thing. It makes me wish that writer-director Rawson Marshall Thurber (Dodgeball, Central Intelligence) had taken that more to heart in the making of Skyscraper.

Like Mark L. Lester had with Arnold Schwarzenegger in Commando, Thurber has the premiere action star of his time in Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson for his leading man. Here Johnson plays Will Sawyer, a former FBI hostage negotiator, who after a horrific tragedy lost a leg and has become a security expert. He’s also now married to the doctor who saved his life (Neve Campbell) and they have two young children.

Bringing his family along, Will has come to Hong Kong to inspect the world’s tallest building, “The Pearl.” We of course know that bad guys will seize the building putting Will’s family in danger and that he will spring into action, killing terrorists one by one. It’s simple enough. Unfortunately however, Thurber creates a convoluted terrorist plot for the film’s villains while forgetting to give any of them- particularly the main baddie, Kores Botha (Roland Moller)- personalities. This is indicative of the general problem with Skyscraper itself which is that Thurber just seems to take this all a little too seriously and forgets how much fun this all could be.

As Will, Johnson’s natural charisma shines through but he isn’t given nearly enough to really work with. There are little flashes when we get to see the movie that Skyscraper should have been throughout and Johnson makes the most of those opportunities but sadly they’re fleeting. Campbell is serviceable and gets a couple of good moments but largely the characters are forgettable and one of my favorite underrated actors, Noah Taylor, is wasted here. As soon as he appeared on screen I was hoping he would turn out to be the film’s main villain. He would make a great classic scenery chewing action baddie. The kind of guy who just wants money and enjoys being evil/crazy. But his character is just kind of there and Botha is given nothing to make him interesting. I’m not asking for or expecting the next Hans Gruber (that would just be unfair) but make an effort and give us a character. It is apparent that the “villain problem” that has been talked about so much in recent years isn’t limited to Marvel.

Skyscraper could have at least been somewhat salvaged by some rollicking action sequences but Thurber’s direction of those scenes is remarkably bland. He has never attempted a real action movie before and it shows here. In his first feature, 2004’s Dodgeball, Thurber made a terrifically clever comedy disguised as a dumb one but his skills don’t translate to action. I would have hoped he would have at least been able to have fun with the kinds of characters and tropes the genre is known for but as detailed above, Skyscraper is largely devoid of that.

Years after the craze had come and gone the idea of a movie in the vein of Die Hard by way of The Towering Inferno sounded like a good throwback. If done properly it would be just self-aware enough and really just be pure entertainment, leaning into the inherent silliness of the premise. Success would have been something along the lines of Sudden Death, the 1995 Jean-Claude Van Damme vehicle that never pretended to be anything other than a Die Hard knockoff at the Stanley Cup Finals. Van Damme’s performance is good enough, Powers Booth has a solid villain to play and makes the most of it, and Peter Hyams delivers some really well-executed action sequences. The henchmen are all deliciously over the top and there is also the glorious JCVD vs. mascot fight which hits the silliness sweet spot. I would recommend watching that instead if you’re looking for a Die Hard imitator you may have missed. Skyscraper sadly doesn’t deliver.

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