Attempting remakes of Die Hard is nothing new. Back in the ‘90s, it was more or less a cottage industry with “Die Hard on a Mountain” (Cliffhanger), “Die Hard on a Bus” (Speed), “Die Hard on a Plane” (Con Air), and “Die Hard on a Plane Again” (Air Force One), among others. So it is no surprise someone eventually just said “what about Die Hard in a Skyscraper? But, you know, on fire this time?” Hence we have the much belated yet mostly welcome Skyscraper, or “Die Hard in the Towering Inferno… and with the Rock!”
Indeed, there is not a twist or turn, or even action set-piece that dares risk surprising you in Dwayne Johnson’s latest high-concept—one that is so high it literally touches the clouds. This is unabashedly unoriginal, and it borrows from much better films that also include GoldenEye, The Dark Knight, and even Orson Welles’ noir classic, Lady from Shanghai. It’s not as good as any of those movies, obviously, but it doesn’t have to be. As a cheeky and proudly dim actioner that features a one-legged Dwayne Johnson jumping from a crane into a burning skyscraper some hundred feet away, the movie is gloriously kitsch, and with just enough grace to stick its wobbly and delightfully derivative landing.
Set in a fictional imagining of what the next tallest building in the world might look like, the eponymous Skyscraper is a shiny, reflective city on a manmade hill. Like a double-helixed version of the new World Trade Center in Manhattan, this fictional building is a 220-floor behemoth in downtown Hong Kong called “the Pearl,” and apple of rich man Zhao Long Ji’s eye. Ji (Chin Han) has spent billions to build this paradise, which is powered by two wind turbines near the top, just underneath his own personal penthouse suite and an observation deck complete with digital cameras that create a funhouse mirror effect for no discernable reason other than it’d be an awesome way to stage a climactic shootout.
However, before tourists or terrorists alike can enjoy that observation deck, Ji needs to have the skyscraper’s state of the art security systems signed off on by an inspector named Will Sawyer (Johnson), a loving family man who met his wife, military surgeon Sarah (Neve Campbell), after losing his leg in the line of duty. Nowadays, they live an idyllic existence with their children as the only family in the skyscraper, resting peacefully on the 96th floor. Unfortunately, that is also the floor where industrial saboteurs, led by a snarling and perfunctory Roland Møller, begin setting the building ablaze while nameless henchwoman (Hannah Quinlivan) hijacks the structure’s security systems from the outside. With Sarah and her two adorable twin children (McKenna Roberts and Noah Cottrell) trapped inside, stranded by the fire from either reaching the ground floor or Ji’s penthouse at the top, all hope seems lost.
Alas for Møller’s team though, they didn’t account for one variable: those are the Rock’s Will Sawyer’s loved ones in there, and he’ll put their towering inferno into a headlock before he lets it consume the fam.
Skyscraper is a movie where all of the plot points, betrayals, losses, and victories are telegraphed by virtue of being imitative storytelling. So it is up for all involved to turn this imitation into an at least entertaining one, and on that front Skyscraper mostly hits the mark. Reminiscent of those earlier, more patient action movies of yore than today’s hyper-kinetic, constant sugar-rush blockbusters, writer-director Rawson Marshall Thurber (Central Intelligence) takes his time building up not only the digitized skyscraper but the narrative momentum. Like the four-chord keys of a beloved song from summers past, Thurber’s slight cover evokes an only half-remembered sensation while adding just enough modern reverb to count as being different.
The film savors building up the quixotic movie sets they’ll later burn, and the characterizations that will at least be somewhat touched upon during third act’s plot contortions. Thurber and Johnson even try to downplay the star’s thousand-watts charisma and movie screen persona by giving him one leg and putting a little gray in the beard. In the John McClane tradition, Will Sawyer is presented as an everyman who is no daredevil, and is frequently quite terrified of the situations he finds himself in. But the affectation is only halfhearted in a script that nevertheless has Will Sawyer’s first instinct, after seeing the building on fire, to not be running for Hong Kong authorities, but to instead single-handedly and with a disability outrun the cops, resist arrest, and literally leap into a burning building.
The contradiction between ostensible average Joe and narrative superhero is never fully reconciled and unfortunately undercuts much of the tension, including during one of the more hair-raising set-pieces where Johnson’s Will Sawyer is forced to jump between the skyscraper’s spinning turbines to open a locked door. If it were young Bruce Willis with a bloody foot, it might have been genuinely terrifying, but with Johnson, it is merely beguiling in its ridiculousness. When the cord he is hanging onto inevitably begins to break and gets hooked on his artificial foot, it is less a scene of panic than of utter incredulous bemusement.
But even snickers of disbelief count for something. And in a summer, like so many others, swimming in benign blandness, Skyscraper’s ability to evoke mirth instead of nerves is its own type of thrill. But while the Rock is unfortunately not allowed to leave his big screen expectations behind, they’re a boon for Campbell. Never given enough time with Johnson to fully sell the marriage—and with their twin children treated as more accessories than characters—Campbell is nonetheless able to draw from her own background of a fierce survivalist in Wes Craven’s Scream movies to be a more than formidable match for Johnson. The one scene where they get to join forces to take on one of the terrorists suggests a better version of this movie could’ve been a full team-up between Dr. Smolder Bravestone and Sidney Prescott.
The terrorists already seemed doom, but moments as delicious as Campbell crawling across a disintegrating footbridge to reach one of their children while Johnson holds the two-ton structure in place is the movie at its most delusional, dippy best. And as directed with some visual flair and a nearly constantly moving camera by Thurber, it all somehow holds together as miraculously as that rickety walkway.
As the modest inferno that it is, Skyscraper is not the movie of the summer. But it is a movie that can be best enjoyed during the summer, preferably with surround sound, blasting air conditioning, and a goofy grin.
Skyscraper opens Friday, July 13.