Twenty-three people get killed in the original Die Hard, a 1988 film rated R for its violence and swearing. I instantly lost track of the number of deaths in Rawson Marshall Thurber’s Skyscraper, which is rated PG-13. The difference between the two films, besides quality, is that one depicts killing as bloody, gruesome work, the kind of thing that might drive a person to say “motherfucker.” In Skyscraper, by contrast, killing is quick and clean, more like chucking a Mario Kart turtle shell at some mooks than squeezing the life out of them. The MPAA warns that Skyscraper includes “gun violence and action, and for brief strong language,” but rest assured the kiddos won’t have their all-in-good-fun killing spree tainted by the big MF.
The film, a dopey embiggening that is to John McTiernan’s Die Hard what Colin Trevorrow’s Jurassic World was to Steven Spielberg’s first dino-chomp movie, features dead-serious suicide bombers, guns pointed at weeping children and at least three scenes where the bad guys, a pan-national consortium representing “three criminal syndicates,” indiscriminately machine-gun cops and civilians. The flippest of these finds a second-tier villain bursting into a workplace and mowing down rows of innocents at their computers. The filmmakers show us the killer’s enraptured face rather than the violated bodies, so this scene — by the logic of the MPAA — is suitable for families. Apparently it’s healthier for the kids to see how badass she looks perpetrating a mass shooting than to face the horror she’s unleashed.
Skyscraper is a family-bonding adventure film starring Dwayne Johnson, Neve Campbell and two elementary-age children who are as good at appearing darling (in the early scenes) as they are at playacting the role of traumatized hostages (in the later scenes). The marketing emphasizes derring-do rather than indiscriminate slaughter, showcasing the bit in which Johnson’s character, Will Sawyer, leaps from the top of a crane toward a sleek Hong Kong tower’s 100th floor. Or the one where he — like Bruce Willis’ John McClane three decades back — must improvise some rappelling gear and go over the building’s side. These sequences are the film’s best, its most inventive and exciting, the ones where the action choreography and framing are sharpest; at times, Johnson is like the hero of some platforming video game, studying his environment to find ways to climb some place seemingly impossible to reach.
Campbell, as Sarah Sawyer, gets to do more than the wife character in such a movie usually does; rather than the go-get-’em type or the please don’t go get ’em! type, she’s the I’ll stab a motherfucker with these scissors type. Except she can’t say that word as she stabs — this is a family film. Touchingly, Will and Sarah team up, on occasion, at one point solving the puzzle of how to cross the gap in a flaming catwalk and save the child on the other side. Twice in two minutes of screen time, fiery debris plunges down and separates sets of characters, necessitating these rescues. Since the leads are so appealing, and we’re being spared the rote yet vicious gunplay, I’m not complaining, exactly. I almost admire the laziness of the scripting. In this overworked, underpaid country of ours, why begrudge a screenwriter seizing the chance to knock off early?
But there’s no excuse for all that shooting, either morally, on the part of the filmmakers, or practically, on the part of the villains. The plot involves their efforts to steal what’s pretty much a flash drive containing the banking information of many of their international criminal associates. To do this, they set fire to the Pearl, a just finished (but mostly empty) 200-story skyscraper. The building’s mastermind, Zhao Long Zhi (Chin Han), has the flash drive in the penthouse, where he’s already living; the Sawyers, for nonsensical plot reasons, also live in the otherwise uninhabited tower. After yoinking a tablet that controls the building’s security system from Johnson’s character, the villains storm the Pearl and an off-site security hub, where they unnecessarily murder a dozen or so people; it’s probably meant as a cheeky joke that the victims are wearing red shirts. Remember, the bad guys’ mission is to steal one item from an unoccupied building with security systems they’ve already shut down while aiming to throw the heat off them and their network. The killing is entirely unmotivated.
The filmmakers seem to have some qualms about guns. Our upstanding Sawyers, the only American characters in the film, don’t wield firearms. Instead, they kill reluctantly, with whatever tools they have handy. Johnson savors a couple of crowd-pleasing cracks about the reliability of duct tape, the goofiest coming as Sawyer cheerily performs the action hero’s ritualistic mid-movie self-surgery. Johnson’s quips are three grades more hammy than any by Bruce Willis, though, so his patter plays as the jokes of an actor eager to lighten the mood rather than of a character talking to himself so he doesn’t lose his mind.
The first time Sawyer kills a guy, he immediately tries to save him, attempting to treat the wound. He’s not just a Good Guy but a good guy, an ex-FBI boy scout, a white-hat hero who isn’t secretly turned on by the mayhem. He has to kill, though, as the bastards have (for plot reasons!) kidnapped one of his children. Nobody watching would argue he doesn’t have every right to perform the acts of heroic violence, which is a curious thing in a country where millions are comfortable with our government breaking up families at the border. If Johnson played one of those dads, would audiences be persuaded to cheer the rampage?