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‘Die Hard’ Started a New Era for Action Movies. ‘Skyscraper’ Shows Where It’s Gone Wrong

Plus some other random thoughts about the latest Dwayne Johnson action movie

As you’ve probably heard, Skyscraper pays homage to Die Hard: Almost 30 years to the day of that film’s release, Dwayne Johnson plays a Bruce Willis-ian family man who must save those he loves from terrorists, running around an empty high-rise to do so. This is hardly the first film to be inspired by Die Hard — for a while there, rip-offs came fast and furious, most notably Speed and Under Siege, though I also have a fondness for Jean-Claude Van Damme’s dopey hockey-rink addition to the genre.

Die Hard is a classic — that rare example of a brilliant high-concept premise matched by superb execution — and so, it’s understandable why it remains a touchstone for younger filmmakers. But Skyscraper, which was written and directed by Rawson Marshall Thurber, illustrates how the Hollywood forces that shaped Die Hard have evolved over the last several decades, mostly for the worse. If Skyscraper is the modern Die Hard, it’s telling that the new movie is such a dud.

When Die Hard was being developed — the movie was based on the 1979 novel Nothing Lasts Forever — action films were largely populated by muscle-bound tough guys like Arnold Schwarzenegger and Sylvester Stallone. There was still room for more lifelike heroes such as Harrison Ford’s Indiana Jones — or super-tough women, such as Sigourney Weaver’s Ellen Ripley — but Willis’ casting was hardly an obvious choice for New York cop John McClane. Sure, both of them were smart-asses, but Willis was mostly known for his comedic/romantic chops on the ABC series Moonlighting. That was part of his appeal: He was a believable ordinary guy, which made his showdown with the nefarious criminal Hans Gruber (played to perfection by the late Alan Rickman) all the more compelling and engaging. McClane was the one action hero to whom normal people could relate.

Directed by John McTiernan, who had previously worked with Schwarzenegger on Predator, Die Hard was a product of a Hollywood era where digital effects hadn’t yet taken over. (It really wasn’t until five summers later when Jurassic Park would show what digital could do.) As a result, Die Hard’s action sequences relied on old-school techniques like miniatures, and the effects’ tactile quality helped give McClane’s quest a further hint of realism, which only amplified the sense of stakes. The limitations of technology enforced certain storytelling restrictions — quite simply, there were things filmmakers couldn’t do back then — which helps explain why Die Hard is as much a shrewd cat-and-mouse game as it is a shoot-‘em-up spectacle full of big explosions. In fact, watch Die Hard now: There actually aren’t that many explosions, especially in comparison to modern blockbusters.

All of which brings us to Skyscraper. Despite its borrowing of Die Hard’s basic premise, the movie differs from the 1988 film in two crucial regards: Its character isn’t an ordinary guy, and the movie is wall-to-wall CGI.

Johnson is a very likeable action hero, but Thurber’s attempts to make his character, named Will Sawyer, “normal” don’t work. Will is a former FBI agent who lost his leg in a failed rescue mission. Skyscraper gives him a wife (Neve Campbell) and kids — he even makes lame dad jokes — but none of that distracts from the fact that, c’mon, he’s a super-buff dude who looks like Dwayne Johnson.

And whereas Die Hard had to get inventive to find ways for McClane to avoid Gruber’s goons, Skyscraper puts Will in a 200-plus-story building that has tons of “fun” different rooms, including an indoor forest and an impractical turbine feature, all for the purpose of letting our hero kick ass in lots of “cool” settings. We’ve reached a point with CG effects that, if a filmmaker can dream it up, technology can make it a reality. Never mind that those “realities” look so fake that it feels like Will is rummaging around in a video game.

Months later, I’m still thinking about my conversation with comic, author and hardcore Die Hard fan Doogie Horner, who last year put out a faux-children’s book called A Die Hard Christmas. Horner went to art school, and he sees different eras of Hollywood action movies as “periods” that are similar to movements in the art world. He places Die Hard as part of the industry’s High Renaissance period — meaning, a time when realism mixed with a slightly heightened sense of implausibility. As Horner explained to me, Die Hard unwittingly ushered in the age of unreality in action movies:

[B]efore Die Hard, [Hollywood action movies] were basically like Hellenistic art, where the films were pretty realistic. So you get action films in the 1970s like Dirty Harry. Those movies are pretty realistic — everything that happens in Dirty Harry could theoretically happen in real life, because they didn’t have enough special effects to make fake shit happen.

But then in the 1980s, things get a little bit unrealistic. First Blood is a good example. That movie theoretically could happen — up until the end, where he has a machine gun and is shooting up the whole town and nobody is stopping him. Or like in Die Hard — I guess this guy could beat all these terrorists, but then as soon as he leaps off the roof, you’re like, “That’s impossible.” But you go with it, because you’re like, “Okay, this is one small, impossible thing in a mostly possible movie that’s very grounded.” That’s the little dash of imagination that elevates the film above everything that came before it. It’s like the Renaissance — Michelangelo and da Vinci did the same thing. Their artwork was basically realistic, with just a little bit of imagination.

But then what happened after that was filmmakers said, “Look how great the movies got once we added some fantasy — if we add even more fantasy, it should be even better.” And that’s how you get a movie like Con Air, where so many impossible things happen. It’s just like Mannerism, the period of art after the High Renaissance, where they just painted all this impossible shit. What happens is that it’s not grounded in reality anymore, so it’s actually less impressive and less affecting.

Whether or not you buy Horner’s comparisons between high art and Hollywood blockbusters, his underlying argument is dead-on. Johnson does so many ridiculous things in Skyscraper that, on some level, we’re supposed to just laugh it off. The idea is that we know it’s all implausible, so the fun is watching digital wizards work their magic. This is the default mode of most action movies, which want to wow us with the impossible. But for the makers of Skyscraper to speak so glowingly of Die Hard is to miss exactly what made that 30-year-old film so iconic. We love John McClane because he can’t do everything, and he’s in a movie where the impossible mostly can’t happen. In Skyscraper, reality is set aside — it’s a world of such limitless possibilities that nothing really matters.

Here are a few other takeaways from Skyscraper. (Warning: There will be spoilers.)

#1. Duct tape is very useful — but not for climbing on the outside of buildings.

One of Skyscraper’s running jokes is that Will is a big fan of duct tape. “If you can’t fix it with duct tape, you’re not using enough duct tape,” he’s fond of saying, and he proves that mantra over the course of this action-thriller as he wields the adhesive for all sorts of MacGyver-like purposes. But the film’s most memorable duct tape moment is when he climbs outside the high-rise, called the Pearl, using duct tape as suction cups.

This, of course, is impossible: Will is so high up — and, again, the dude’s using duct tape as his only way to hang onto this skyscraper — that he would most assuredly plunge to his death. But, hey, this is a movie — and a pretty silly one — so expecting plausibility would be a waste of time. Still, I was curious if anyone has tried using duct tape to climb walls.

And so, meet David Vlas, a YouTube celebrity who makes goofy videos where he plays pranks, hangs out with his buddies and generally does dumb stuff. More than a year ago, inspired by Spider-Man, he wondered if he could be a do-it-yourself webslinger. Basically, this resulted in him and his pal Danny applying Super Tough 3M duct tape to their hands and trying to scale the siding on the outside of David’s house. Another spoiler alert: It doesn’t work at all.

Don’t get me wrong: This isn’t to disparage the greatness of duct tape, an incredibly versatile tool. Plenty of other sites have correctly pointed out all of the things duct tape can legitimately be used for — everything from makeshift wallets to refrigerator shelves. (My personal favorite is as a de facto jar-opener.) So while it definitely won’t help you climb a building, it’s still incredibly handy.

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#2. And now, we present the weirdest movie-theater display ever.

The ArcLight chain, which includes the flagship theater in Hollywood (home to the legendary Cinerama Dome), will often feature cool lobby displays of some behind-the-scenes detail from the films they’re screening. For instance, I’ve seen the miniature model for the hotel in The Grand Budapest Hotel and the suits used in Ant-Man and the Wasp. This weekend, though, Skyscraper played at the ArcLight Hollywood, and Universal provided the theater with… Dwayne Johnson’s shirts:

At first glance, this seems like a very boring display. But writer “Jason in Hollywood,” who runs a blog devoted to Hollywood props and costumes, points out that it’s actually a pretty interesting peek into how costume designers deal with a common problem, which is how to handle a character who only wears one outfit for an entire movie. More than 130 shirts had to be made for Skyscraper, each of them tailored to exactly how beat-up the shirt (and Will) are at that particular moment in the story.

It’s a small little thing, but those kinds of tiny details are crucial in big studio movies. You’re not going to watch Skyscraper to see if the Rock’s shirt gets believably dirtier and bloodier throughout the film. But if the costume people screwed it up, you’d probably notice. (And according to Johnson, the final shirt in the display contains his actual blood.)

#3. I hate when movies use real-world ailments as plot devices.

I don’t know much about asthma, but based on the movies I’ve seen, it seems terrible. I think back to that character in The Goonies who has to take a hit of his inhaler whenever there’s a tense moment. My childhood brain deduced that people with asthma will die without their inhaler — although, inexplicably, he tosses it aside at the end of the movie, an indication that he was going to stop being such a wimp.

The impression The Goonies created was that asthma was something the afflicted could just “get over” if they tried hard enough — and that an inhaler was like a magic lifeline for the weak to stay alive. Writer Matthew Edwards, who has asthma, talked about this weird phenomenon in movies of using asthma as a character trait for “weakness.” Referencing films like It and Hitch, which feature ineffectual characters with asthma, Edwards says, “[T]he concept is clear in all these movies: Medicine, particularly inhalers, keeps you from being brave, from being masculine, from being strong, from being heroic. Inhalers are what keeps these characters nerdy and socially awkward, or at least represent all that holds them back from being socially acceptable.”

It’s not quite that bad in Skyscraper, but it’s still irritating that one of Will’s kids, Henry (Noah Cottrell), is presented as an asthma sufferer. Anybody trapped in a skyscraper that’s on fire would be terrified, but writer-director Rawson Marshall Thurber has to ratchet up the tension by creating situations where young Henry has to worry about smoke — you know, because of his crippling asthma! — and the question of where his inhaler is becomes part of the suspense.

Henry isn’t presented as weak or a loser because of his asthma — which I suppose is some miniscule form of progress — but nonetheless his condition becomes an obstacle that the rest of the characters must contend with. Essentially, there’s still the suggestion that he’s a liability to the family’s attempts to reach safety: If it weren’t for Henry and her damn affliction, we’d be outta here by now!

Granted, this is a movie whose main character has a prosthetic leg, but look how that’s presented: Will lost his leg trying to help others, so his prosthetic is a badge of honor and an indication of his heroism and mettle. Plus, the prosthetic proves to be incredibly useful as Will fights to stay alive inside (and outside) the building. If you have a prosthetic leg, Skyscraper will make you feel good about yourself. If you have asthma, not so much.

#4. The Rock is very good at Twitter.

A few weeks ago, MEL’s own Cooper Fleishman wrote a piece about whether Will would survive a jump from a crane into an open window of the skyscraper. (He even interviewed an assistant professor of mathematics to be extra-scientific about it.) The answer: Yeah, maybe, the Rock wouldn’t fall to his death, but it would be close.

Soon after Fleishman posted the piece, Johnson himself weighed in:

This is a thing the Rock does a lot: Of the many, many celebrities on Twitter, he might be the most fun. For celebrities, so much of Twitter connectivity is about Brand Maintenance or Product Promotion, but Johnson doesn’t come across that way. He calls fans “my dude” or “bro” in a way that doesn’t feel douche-y. He’ll go out of his way to help get film critics laid. And he’s not gonna let guys like DJ Khaled get away with arguing that men don’t have to perform cunnilingus:

In fact, he’s so great at Twitter, it makes me feel bad that, after watching Skyscraper, I continue to insist that the least-great thing about Dwayne Johnson are his actual movies.