Why 'Skyscraper' Couldn't Match 'Die Hard'

Dwayne Johnson's new film is inspired by the Bruce Willis classic and 'Towering Inferno,' but it struggles to remember what made those films fresh.
A throwback poster for 'Skyscraper' (left) and 'Die Hard'
Dwayne Johnson's new film is inspired by the Bruce Willis classic and 'Towering Inferno,' but it struggles to remember what made those films fresh.

July 15 marks the 30th anniversary of a truly great modern action pic, Die Hard. Unlike even some more recent action classics, Die Hard can comfortably be considered one of the most influential films of the genre. How many other movies in the last three decades have we seen that are basically Die Hard in a different location? Instead of one man trapped in a building with bad guys, we’ve gotten movies with self-contained action on a bus (Speed), on the president’s airplane (Air Force One), on a regular airplane (Passenger 57), on a submarine (Under Siege) and more. This weekend heralds the release of Skyscraper, the latest movie heavily inspired by Die Hard, in which one man is trapped…in a building with bad guys. Not a plane, not a submarine, not a bus, but…a building.

What Skyscraper has that no other Die Hard homage/rip-off has is Dwayne Johnson as its star. His presence elevates the movie a bit, but not enough, because writer/director Rawson Marshall Thurber steers away from the things that make Die Hard so memorable 30 years later. The bad guys are largely forgettable, and humor is mostly absent, unlike in the 1988 classic. Elements of the setup are singular enough. Johnson plays Will Sawyer, an ex-FBI agent who now works as a security consultant. Will and his family have been called to Hong Kong so he can provide a third-party assessment of what is purported to be the tallest skyscraper in the world, known as the Pearl. Soon after he arrives, though, Will is framed for murder, while his wife and kids are trapped in the Pearl as a group of terrorists set a fire in the hopes of destroying the entire structure.

So, yes, there’s a bit of the '70s-era disaster film The Towering Inferno in the mix here, but Will’s basic one-man mission to save his family is equally reminiscent of the exploits of Bruce Willis’ John McClane in the original Die Hard. Here, granted, Will is a devoted family man with no possible chance of acrimony with his wife. And this movie’s hero, in spite of having a prosthetic leg, is still Dwayne Johnson, so he’s a bit more physically capable than '80s-era Bruce Willis. But you don’t have to look hard to see connections between this film and Die Hard, which is part of the problem.

The terrorists are, essentially, puffed-up thieves trying to ruin the rich Asian businessman behind the new building. Will, once he’s back in the skyscraper to save his family, resorts to duct tape to patch up a wound. On the ground, the cops initially presume Will is one of the bad guys, though one cop is willing to see him as more heroic. There’s a character who admits he hasn’t picked up a gun in years because of a long-ago incident involving a child. (And you can bet that character does pick up a gun by the end of the film.)

The few moments when Skyscraper doesn’t seem to directly quote Die Hard are when it appears to be quoting other action movies. The most notable example of this pic’s inability to stop copying other films is during a late sequence where Will has to scale the outside of the Pearl to access the security controls for a panic-room-style penthouse. He uses duct tape to wrap his hands and feet so they can adhere to the glass on the outside. Though the methods are different, seeing Johnson dangle on the side of this impossibly tall building calls to mind the jaw-dropping and vertiginous centerpiece of Mission: Impossible — Ghost Protocol, in which Tom Cruise climbed up the side of the Burj Khalifa in Dubai.

To suggest that Skyscraper is the first movie of any genre to crib from earlier entries would be utterly ridiculous. Die Hard was not the first action film to pit one man against many, but its specific rendition of familiar tropes felt fresh and original. (This, in spite of the fact that it was inspired by a novel as well.) And Towering Inferno was the latest in a long line of preposterous disaster films. The problem isn’t specifically that Skyscraper isn’t a very original film; it’s technically not based on something, but that doesn’t make it truly unique. The real problem is that Skyscraper is unable to remove itself from the shadows of older, better action films. It’s always enjoyable to watch Dwayne Johnson in a big-budget blockbuster, sure. But Skyscraper is best at reminding us that Die Hard already did this plot, and did it better.

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