It is the height of chutzpah for Universal Pictures to release Skyscraper, the latest action-movie event starring Dwayne Johnson, on the eve of the 30th anniversary of the film to which it owes a massive debt, Die Hard. Though Skyscraper isn’t solely derivative of the seminal action movie about a down-on-his-luck cop who has to fend off a series of Eurotrash terrorists while trapped in a fancy high-rise, it’s unable to escape from the shadows of better action films. Johnson is charming as always, even if the film around him can’t measure up.

Here, Johnson plays Will Sawyer, a security consultant working in Hong Kong to give a third-party assessment of the Pearl, a massive skyscraper that’s larger than the Empire State Building by three times. Will and his family – wife Sarah (Neve Campbell) and their twin son and daughter – are staying in the Pearl during this assessment. All is well, at least until a group of shady Scandinavian baddies set a fire in the building, frame Will for murder, and try to take out the rest of his family.

Will’s fierce devotion to his wife and kids is one of the few things that clearly differentiates this from Die Hard. Unlike John McClane, Will is deeply in love with all things family from the word go: in love with his wife, with his kids, with being part of a family, the whole kit and kaboodle. The way that “family” is employed as a concept often tips into ridiculousness: when Will expresses how glad he is to have met his wife, wondering what would have happened to him otherwise, an old buddy of his takes it as a personal affront, because he has no family. It’d be funny if it wasn’t played so sincerely.

Of course, John McClane was a great lead character in part because he felt vulnerable as a hero. How, it could be asked, can you make Dwayne Johnson remotely as vulnerable? One of the choices here by writer/director Rawson Marshall Thurber is to give Will a slightly tragic backstory, in which his past as an FBI agent led to an accident in which he lost his leg. Will’s amputee status doesn’t define him, but does mean that his prosthetic leg comes in handy in a couple of fight scenes. Johnson acquits himself predictably well in the various combat sequences, as well as a setpiece in which Will has to scale part of the building. That said, watching Johnson hang on the side of the building is a bit too reminiscent of watching Tom Cruise scale the Burj Khalifa in Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol. This time around, all the hero has to stick to the outside is duct tape.

Where Skyscraper truly stumbles is in two key areas in which Die Hard excelled: humor and the bad guys. Considering that Thurber’s last film was Central Intelligence, and his resume also includes We’re The Millers and Dodgeball: A True Underdog Story, it’s a bit baffling that Skyscraper is a) not that funny and b) not even trying to be that funny. This is a vastly more straightforward film than anything else he’s directed; not that changing things up is bad, but considering how goofy so much of the setup of Skyscraper is, a bit more levity would have been welcome. (And again: since both Thurber and Johnson worked on Central Intelligence, we know they can be funny together.)

The villains here, led by Roland Moller, are also a letdown. Granted, not every action-movie bad guy can be as nuanced and fascinating as the late Alan Rickman’s take on Hans Gruber. But the script doesn’t give Moller that much to do, making it so the performance kind of falls flat. It’s not terribly surprising that the terrorists are out for cash, in the same vein as Hans and his team, but the more detailed motivation here is both convoluted and airless. Pitting Dwayne Johnson against terrorists is all well and good, but they don’t come close to matching his level of charisma.

Enough of Skyscraper works, in a Sunday-afternoon-movie-on-TNT kind of way, that it’s not a total wash. A climactic scene in a tricked-out space replete with hundreds of reflective HD panels allows for some added tension, and the scenes in which Johnson has to enter the building from the outside at a very high height are appropriately vertiginous, even as they no doubt indulge in a lot of CG trickery. There’s nothing wrong with a movie using Die Hard as its template; other solid action movies such as Speed and Air Force One have done so. But Skyscraper fails to elevate itself above the basic premise of “What if Die Hard, but with Dwayne Johnson?” That’s the foundation. You have to build on that. This movie doesn’t.

/Film Rating: 5 out of 10

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About the Author

Josh Spiegel is a Phoenix-based critic & writer. He's one of the hosts of Mousterpiece Cinema, a podcast about Disney films. He's also written a book of criticism on Pixar, titled Yesterday is Forever: Nostalgia and Pixar Animation Studios.