Monday, December 23, 2013

The Tower (2012) Movie Thoughts

Babysitter-less single dad brings his daughter to work on Xmas eve as his workplace, the newly completed Tower Sky. And this high tech duo of residential skyscrapers is filling to the brim with workers, execs, residents, and security detail as the holiday eve's grand festivities begin to ramp up. Drama is an expected norm during the holidays (To be fair, there is already much of it from the offset.). But when a helicopter accident near the upper floors sets the upper floors ablaze, it's like watching our greatest fears of nature coming back with a harsh reminder of who's boss.

Never let it be said that South Korea doesn't love generations of Hollywood spectacle. Because the director of the ill-fated monster-dreck, Sector 7, Kim Ji-hoon has gone ahead and given the world his answer to Irwin Allen with The Tower. Adorned with grand sets, impressive effects, and an insane cast, his sprawling, often impressively mounted disaster epic is probably as big a South Korean film could ever be. Perhaps the ultimate expression of "making it" in terms of numbers, The Tower is on its face a tonal superball with budget to spare. As for whether or not it is a rousing success, perhaps that best requires a little more detail. While being infinitely better than his previous, this wacky take on Gullermin's The Towering Inferno suffers from perhaps too much in the promise, and rarely enough in the final execution. It's a grand piece that flags when it should soar, and largely due to almost copping the worst instincts of American directors like Michael Bay, or even Roland Emmerich. So yes, there is also an identity crisis happening throughout that keeps the whole from grabbing like it probably should.

One place where the film does shine, is in the colorful cast representing many of the classic disaster epic archetypes. From the previously mentioned single dad working as the building's maintenance supervisor, to the veteran firefighter(Sol Kyung-gu, in a well-grounded performance) with one more Xmas eve away from his long suffering wife. We even have a love interest in the form of chinese restaurant manager played by S.Korea's "Romance Queen", Son Ye-Jin. Also along for the ride, include a fresh young firefighting rookie with much to prove, a middle-aged janitor with a teen son watching helplessly from the ground, the woefully irresponsible company president, and a young cook with trendy girl in tow. The cast itself representing over a decade-plus's worth of memorable television stars and idols screaming away in what amounts to a great demo reel for a potentially singular theme park attraction.

But a lot of where Ji-hoon and company excel, are in technical acrobatics, and some effective deathtrap images. For a film of a significantly lower budget (at roughly 10 million US), there are moments here that rival the largest Hollywood can conceivably dole out. It's not unlike planting a blazing flag atop a mountain of bigger-is-better cinematic achievement. Among the ballsiest director reel ready moments include an out of the building hair-breadth escape via a window washing gondola with too many survivors on it, and a tense walk across an unstable, nearly all glass bridge between towers. If anything undermines these scenes, it's the editing which teeters from sharp, to downright corner-cutting as tension tends to suffer as a result. Several potentially groundbreaking action moments find themselves undone by choices that could so easily have been avoided with a little faith.

Much like these issues, the story setups are well established, yet the film tends to sell itself short. There are numerous subplots, not all of which are tied up by the Bay-esque finale. In fact, many of the central plot's problems stem from a deliberate effort in the first half to establish characters we would soon see as either borderline villianous get no real comeuppance. It is such a pervasive part of the latter third, that it almost clocks as accidental theme. The problems really seep in once it becomes clear that responsibility for all of this is almost scuttled to nearly ignored. Possibly a victim of heavy cutting, such a busy film seems hellbent on maintaining a two hour running time, which it barely clocks in at. If anything is improved by this, it's the lack of irritation that often follows in the wake of Ji-hoon's inspirations. Christian jokes aside, the piece never ends up anywhere as putrid and cheap as many of america's more recent disaster fare. This, plus some pretty decent performances across the board work as saving graces if there ever were any.

Still, there is a sense of global intent which is something worth celebrating a little here. In a work that almost metaphorically resembles the central setting, there is much to hem and haw about in terms of production, but seams occasionally point toward hazards that threaten the whole. But even if it isn't a top to bottom success, there is something to be said for cinema of the world responding to H-town with such ambition and energy.  There are fewer subgenres that speak to a universal audience the way grand scale calamity does, and The Tower does its ample best to be one that not only speaks to a local audience, but to all. Once one surrenders onesself to it, it's big, loud, occasionally delirious fun. But studio pressures, derivative choices, and some real dearth of emotional involvement remain its greatest structural defects.