There are remakes and there are reboots, and then there are carbon copies like The Tower, a new-to-DVD Korean import that shamelessly reinterprets the 1974 American disaster epic The Towering Inferno for modern-day audiences. It’s needlessly familiar and hardly successful in achieving its own identity, but as unnecessary films go, one could do much worse.
On Christmas Eve, preparation for the annual holiday party at the extravagant residential dual-structure Tower Sky (which would have been an infinitely better title, taking one step in the direction toward identifiability) is underway. Dominoes of human error and disregard for proper procedure are set up, knocked down and, before long, take Tower Sky with them.
The rehashed premise proves to be fertile playground for director Ji-hoon Kim, who stages and captures destruction with even-handed panache. The quality of the action helps elevate The Tower above late-night Syfy channel fare. And with a reported budget just shy of $10 million, it’s a convincing argument for how Roland Emmerich-level explosive mayhem can be sufficiently achieved with pocket change.
The first half hour is devoted to rolling out the carpet for the cast, all variants on types so familiar that it shouldn’t be difficult to guess where their arcs will go over the course of the peril. Emphasis on “shouldn’t be”, as there proves to be too many characters, and the ones originally pegged as leads are all but forgotten in the schmaltzy second half. It’s as if Armageddon suddenly relied on Will Patton’s character to provide the film’s emotional core in its final act instead of Bruce Willis’s.
Still, there’s a brisk clarity to the introductory sequence of The Tower, even with all the what-could-have-beens that are set up as skillfully as they are abandoned. That care is an element of detail that modern American action films tend to lack, and works to The Tower’s benefit in terms of raising stakes. The initial images of chaos are cheerfully off-putting, as faces and hands start melting to the walls of an elevator flanked by flames. Also, it’s refreshing to see so much blood spilled and limbs lost in a PG-13 rated movie for a change, as their omission from American films reek of cowardly denialism.
The relentless images of side-by-side skyscrapers and their systematic destruction will no doubt evoke memories of 9/11, which keeps The Tower on the bubble of insensitivity. But the fact that the film makes no attempt to connect both incidents lends itself an air of naïveté that welcomely strands its fictional events in a land of fantasy. I was far more disturbed by the snobbish tenant who refuses to clean up after her gaudily-groomed dog, and even more bothered by the God-fearing, low-class resident who kicks said dog after its vindictive owner pays him a snooty remark.
Though its steady pace isn’t necessarily affected, at just a stretch over two hours, The Tower barrels on for far too long. While it showcases a couple of genuinely slick and tense action set pieces (most notably the careful walk across the glass bridge connecting the two towers), it’s too thankless to appreciate on its own merit. On the whole, The Tower is just too unacceptably derivative.
One thing I’ve noticed and admire about Korean directors is how tonally twisted they allow their films to be. They occasionally strive for humor at the most inappropriate times, and cull compassion at equally oddball moments. In the more capable hands of directors such as Joon-ho Bong (The Host, Mother) and Chan-wook Park (Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance, Stoker), for example, those moments are juggled with effective dexterity, which has been key to their crossover success. The Tower, watchable as it may be, too often reminds us that we could, and probably should be watching better films. And in cinema, there is no greater crime.