The Tower

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A movie for every day of the year – a good one

10 July

London burns, 1212

Ask any British schoolkid about the Great Fire of London and 1666 is the date they have ready before the question has even been finished. But if you’d asked a schoolchild of 1665 about the Great Fire of London, they’d have offered you one of two dates – either 1135 or 1212. Fires on both of those dates started near London Bridge, built of wood at the time of the 1135 fire and only just rebuilt in stone when the second fire started on 10 July 1212, south of the river in Southwark.

The 1212 fire first destroyed Our Lady of the Canons church before being driven by strong southerly winds towards the bridge. Built of stone it might well have been, but the bridge was festooned with wooden structures, King John having rented out the space on the bridge for dwellings and shops. As embers from the south bank blew northwards, they ignited the wooden buildings on the bridge and also buildings north of it, trapping many people on the bridge who were rushing either to put the fire out, or just to stare at it.

Contemporary estimates suggest that 3,000 people died in the blaze, but since the population of London at the time was only 40,000 to 50,000, this is probably an exaggeration. Fire would strike again in 1220, 1227 and 1299, and again in 1633, before the big fire of 1666, which led to Londoners abandoning wood as their favourite building material.

The Tower (2012, dir: Kim Ji-hoon)

If The Towering Inferno is the iPhone of disaster movies – does everything you want with a sexy, starry interface – then The Tower is the Samsung equivalent. It’s a Korean film, too, and though laboured references to iPhones can stop here, the comparisons to the 1974 movie keep coming.

The Tower is all set on a too-big luxury highrise and the curtain rises to the sound of White Christmas playing on the soundtrack. Time and space established, we meet the fire crew who, as in Inferno, are later to feature quite large, in a knockabout comedy sequence in which the gallant guys are called to put out a tiny fire in the kitchen of this huge skyscraper. The sprinklers don’t seem to have worked, possibly, we learn, due to shoddy or even downright negligent construction. Fans of the original Towering Inferno tick another box.

We meet the various people who are about to be subjected to trial by fire – a stuck-up bitch who treats her dog better than the hotel staff, a cute kid, a lottery winner sharing in his joy at having an apartment in this fabulous building, a very pretty lowly admin assistant trying to fix the various glitches the new building continues to throw up, while being danced around by a fellow admin assistant, a nervous young man with eyes only for her. And we meet the developers, a dodgy politician, a self-serving architect. Boo, hiss, tick another box.

With 90 minutes of the movie still to go, a helicopter swings into view, about to shower fake snow on a Christmas party held to celebrate the gigantic wealth of those throwing it, rather than the birth of the baby Jesus. The stunt goes (brilliantly) awry, of course, and the disaster kicks off.

Immediately the fire crew swing into action. But their ladders aren’t long enough (another box), and off we go, waiting for the moment Robert Wagner’s equivalent plunges to his death.

The Tower doesn’t stack up as a great film, but individual moments in it are really very special – the pregnant woman walking over a glass bridge suspended hundreds of feet in the air springs immediately to mind as just one of many. And excessive though its set-up is, it can’t outdo the acting, which is pitched almost entirely in the red zone. Everyone is clownish, abjectly miserable or jubilantly ecstatic, and the further away you get from the leads the more exaggerated it gets.

The film clearly cost a very large amount of money and its set pieces are properly awesome. It’s also brilliantly tricked out, the cinematography is as sharp as anything I’ve seen and the lighting has clearly been sweated over.

Its big-money finale won’t be to everyone’s taste – too reminiscent of some of the gruesome scenes from 9/11 (I won’t say which). But Koreans can point to a disaster in Haeundae’s Golden Suites apartments in 2010 as source material, so in that sense at least, this copy can claim a small patch of originality all its own.

Why Watch?

  • The cinematography of Kim Young-Ho (Haeundae)
  • See why it spent two years in post-production
  • The Towering Inferno knock-off
  • The touching performance of rising star Son Ye-jin

The Tower – Watch it now at Amazon

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© Steve Morrissey 2014

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