It’s probably appropriate that Dwayne Johnson should be the one to finally star in a direct rip-off of “Die Hard,” considering that Johnson is one of the only action stars working today to match the wit and charisma of early days Bruce Willis (Willis has become grim and humorless in his later years, but believe it or not he used to be really funny.) “Die Hard” was incredibly influential, and there’ve been a ton of movies like it in the last thirty years, but this week’s “Skyscraper” is one of the few to attempt to copy it this directly.
Johnson is Will Sawyer, an ex-SWAT trooper who lost his leg when a hostage rescue went wrong, and now works as a security consultant. Hired by a wealthy industrialist to assess the safety features of the Pearl, the world’s newest and tallest building, Sawyer travels with his family to Hong Kong and moves into the building’s otherwise empty residential section. All seems hunky dory until a crew of shady technicians shows up at odd hours on the very eve of the building’s certification. Before you know it, the building is on fire and our hero’s family is trapped inside with a whole host of very bad men. But if you think that’s enough to stop The Rock, you’ve obviously not watched enough movies.
“Skyscraper” is certainly diverting, and when you’re watching Will Sawyer in peril, it can get a little heart-stopping at times. The filmmakers do a great job of ramping up the tension in individual scenes and Johnson himself is entertaining enough to keep the movie moving forward. You know he’s not going to fall off the building 45 minutes into the movie, but I still gasped at every near miss. That’s what the movie does right, and that’s not a minor thing. “Skyscraper” is not boring.
But where it misses is in its attempt to be a “Die Hard” for everyone. Johnson, understandably, wants his brand to be as broadly appealing as possible. As such, you don’t see him in a lot of R-rated movies. “Skyscraper” is marketed more as a disaster movie than a shoot ‘em up, but at it’s heart it really wants to be more “Die Hard” than “Towering Inferno.” There is a lot of violent death, but, due to the PG-13 rating, almost no blood. I’ve always found this a rather disturbing kind of cheat. I’m certainly not one of those movie goers that needs to see blood spraying and heads exploding, but when you portray it this way it’s almost like you’re softening death to the level of little kids playing in the back yard. We worry about the level of violence we’re exposing our kids to already — doing it this way shows death with little to no impact.
The violence question is a pet peeve of mine that I’ve been grappling with all the way back to The Rock’s first film, also PG-13, “The Scorpion King.” That’s, perhaps, a question of philosophy. The movie has other problems, though. I have no idea what the director’s initial cut of the film may have looked like, but you can certainly tell it went through some significant changes in the editing bay. A movie like this is all about man vs. obstacle. These stories are really just a series of escalating challenges until you get to the final shoot-out at the end.
Several times, however, much of the challenge is edited out. Sawyer, pursued by police, sees his building on fire from miles away. He’s got to make his way across town, break into a neighboring building, get to the top, and climb up the outside of a massive crane. The movie cuts from him seeing said crane to his being on the side of it, as though he just blinked his way there a la “I Dream of Jeannie.” I understand that the language of cinema allows us to do that kind of thing — not everything that happens in a movie happens in real time, of course. But in this case, you’re short-handing the stuff people actually came to see. This happens a few times throughout the film, as though they were trying to cut for time and didn’t know exactly how to do it, which is especially odd considering the film clocks in at around an hour and forty minutes.
Overall, this movie is entertaining enough for a summer afternoon. All the pieces are there to make a good action movie, and if you’re not too discerning, it works. At the very least, it was nice to see Neve Campbell again, and the movie actually gives her wife character something to do besides simply being the prize the hero has to recover. Even “Die Hard” couldn’t really manage that. Grade: B-
“Skyscraper” is rated PG-13 for violence and language.
Chris Jenness is an art teacher and movie buff who lives in Nikiski.