There’s a fine line between a loving homage and painful retread. Dwayne Johnson, star of this idiotic action spectacle, has been talking about how the film “Skyscraper” was inspired by classics like “Die Hard” and “The Towering Inferno.” Comparing this mindless dreck to two far better films is like saying the power of dreams inspired you to knock someone out with a shovel.
“Die Hard” is a freaking masterpiece. You might have thought I was going to say “compared to ‘Skyscraper.’” Hell to the no. I won’t even put them in the same league, much less the same sentence. “Skyscraper” isn’t fit to wear John McClane’s blood-stained tank top. It’s a vapid, safe, formulaic piece of nonsense, and it’s dumber than a sack of wet concrete and as entertaining as a rectal exam performed by Edward Scissorhands.
Let’s take a moment to analyze why “Die Hard” works so well: It’s an amazing contained thriller with some great action set pieces. Bruce Willis plays a very vulnerable hero who spends a lot of the film getting the shit kicked out of him. The movie also has an extremely likable and interesting supporting cast of characters. There are few movies that do a great job, top to bottom, of casting and creating an interesting ensemble. Hans Gruber (the late, great Alan Rickman) was a perfect villain. There’s a great supporting character in Reginald Veljohnson’s Sgt. Al Powell. Comic relief comes in the form of the LAPD—two morons from the FBI (both named Johnson). Then there’s the chatty limo driver, Argyle (De’voreaux White), and the coke-snorting businessman who ends up getting shot in the face. Even the henchmen are interesting. “Die Hard” is a triumph of writing and casting.
In contrast, “Skyscraper” is a vehicle for Dwayne Johnson with all the fun sucked out of the “Die Hard” concept. This time The Rock plays Will Sawyer, a military vet and now a security analyst who goes to Hong Kong to review an amazing skyscraper (roll credits) attempting to be insured. He brings his entire family along, including his wife Sarah (Neve Campbell) and two adorable children, who get to stay in the building while he makes his pitch. It would normally be great news, if it wasn’t for the fire that starts burning two floors below them, thanks to some irritated gangsters looking to flush out the building’s billionaire creator. Will has to fight his way back into the building, stop the highly trained killers and save his family before they’re consumed by the rising fire.
There are some interesting elements at play here. Director Rawson Marshall Thurber (“Dodgeball”) uses his ticking-clock scenario to help ratchet up the tension, but there’s no one in the film to really care about. Will Sawyer lacks the vulnerability of John McClane. The dude is a walking, throbbing collection of muscles. Even when he’s getting hammered by the bad guys, I never buy that he’s in danger. There’s never a “glass in the foot” moment that makes the audience believe he’s a living, breathing human protagonist. Dwayne Johnson is a charismatic guy, but he’s a cinematic action hero who never really feels like a real person.
Most movies would make an effort to craft a lot of interesting characters and bring a strong ensemble to the project. For some reason Dwayne Johnson seems to avoid that sort of thing. He rarely stars alongside any big names, other than Kevin Hart. It is a Dwayne Johnson film, so all the interesting things have to happen when Johnson is on screen. Unlike “Die Hard,” there isn’t a deep bench of talented ensemble players to help flesh out things. Instead of the emotional, sidelined cop who helps talk John McClane through the crisis, there are a couple of Chinese police detectives who play everything straight. Instead of great scenery-chewing henchmen like Karl (the late, great Alexander Gustanav), there is a meathead-looking pro-wrestler who makes The Rock look small in comparison.
I have no problem with someone trying to make another “Die Hard.” Hell, there was a good 10-year period after the movie came out which saw a number of exceptional imitators, like “Speed” and “The Rock.” The reasons “Die Hard” clones succeeded is because they took the basic premise, found ways to replicate or improve on the formula and kept the idea of a large ensemble cast of entertaining characters. The Rock has proven to be entertaining enough when he surrounds himself with other charismatic actors, but in spite of his muscular girth, he struggles to carry a movie on his own. “Skyscraper” struggles to remain upright and eventually peters out like a flaccid superstructure without a strong foundation.