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‘Skyscraper’ just doesn’t rise high enough

July 21, 2018

In 1988, director John McTiernan helped define the modern-day action flick with an iconic everyman hero by the name of John McClane, a beat cop who must save his family and single-handedly takes on European terrorists in a large building in the classic "Die Hard."

In the 30 years since its release, "Die Hard" has taken on many incarnations (and I am not even talking about the four crappy sequels), where filmmakers have woven the formula with slightly different threads. Meaning, they take an honest, humble-but-deadly hero and pit him/her against obvious bad guys in a single location. Since then, we have had:

Passenger 47 (1992), aka Die Hard ... on a Plane: Airline worker Wesley Snipes stops a European terrorist hijacking an international flight.

Under Siege (1992), aka Die Hard... on a Boat: Naval chef Steven Seagal stops an unhinged ex-CIA officer from hijacking a naval vessel.

Cliffhanger (1993), aka Die Hard ... on a Mountain: Everyman mountain climber Sylvester Stallone stops an international gang of criminals out to steal lost fortune.

Sudden Death (1995), aka Die Hard ... in a Stadium: Everyman fire marshal Jean-Claude Van Damme is at the Pittsburgh Civic Arena and stops an unhinged ex-CIA officer from blowing it up during the Stanley Cup.

The Rock (1996), aka Die Hard ... on Alcatraz: Everyman bomb disposal expert Nicolas Cage stops an unhinged group of Marines who will release a nerve gas unless they get $100 million.

Air Force One (1997), aka Die Hard... on the President's Plane: Everyman, ass-kicking U.S. President Harrison Ford stops a Russian hijacker.

Olympus Has Fallen (2013), aka Die Hard ... in the White House. Everyman Secret Service Agent Gerard Butler stops terrorists from taking over the Oval Office.

There are countless others, mostly relegated to the DVD dustbins of history. (Let us take a moment in honor of Anna Nicole Smith, who also entered the genre with the original 1996 "Skyscraper." Worth a watch, for all the wrong reasons.)

This brings us to "Skyscraper," the latest Rock vehicle, in which he plays an everyman (well, as everyman as the Rock can be) a former law enforcement agent who must save his family and stop terrorists in a large building. And if that looks too close to the opening description of "Die Hard," it is no coincidence. It is virtually the same film, with updated CGI and bits of "Towering Inferno" sprinkled in for good measure.

There's the hero being mistaken for a bad guy, high-tech terrorism, and dangling ... lots and lots of dangling.

There is a certain sadness that it did not play it even closer to the original, as there is something charmingly simple about a straightforward little action film in this day of bigger, stronger, faster, louder.

And with Dwayne Johnson, there is the opportunity to have a charismatic lead on which to hang the project.

Johnson plays former FBI agent and family man Will Sawyer, who lost a leg during a hostage negotiation. He recently landed a gig in Hong Kong to run security on The Pearl, a 240-story structure built by eccentric billionaire Zho Long Ji (played by Chin Han).

The building is obviously overtaken by terrorists, but the big twist here is that Sawyer is outside the building when a fire is intentionally started, and his family is above the floors where the blaze begins.

Considering the three decades of imitation, and just how closely this one sticks to the original "Die Hard," one might think that Johnson and director Rawson Marshall Thurber could have a little more fun with the blueprint, especially when you consider the two worked together on the more-entertaining-than-it-had-any-right-to-be "Central Intelligence."

Instead, they take it to absurdist lengths, defying any laws of nature that we understand as humans. All the "twists" are scripted with the subtlety of a beach-banner plane, and the film takes itself far too seriously to execute the level of logic-tossing stunts in its runtime.

What made "Die Hard" connect was McClane's relatability as a hero.

After he ran across a floor covered with broken glass, we watched him excruciatingly pick it out of his feet in the next scene. In "Skyscraper," Sawyer scales 100 stories while on a crane, runs (with an artificial leg, mind you) from its platform and lands in the one open window of the entire structure.

If you are going to have the characters exist with the same physics as a Road Runner cartoon, have fun with it. But "Skyscraper" stays stone-faced. Johnson demonstrated in "San Andreas" that he can add much to big, dumb action films, and he has an ingratiating smile and humor that elevate him above the detritus. But as towering as it claims to be, "Skyscraper" does nothing but ground him and leave us all staring at the sidewalk.

  • Rob is the head of the English and Communications Department at Delaware Technical Community College, where he teaches film. He is also one of the founders of the Rehoboth Beach Film Society and is lead entertainment writer for Influx Magazine. Email him at filmrob@gmail.com.