Skyscraper is typically implausible Dwayne Johnson fare, but the mega-star’s usual charms are wasted on an oddly po-faced and humorless actioner.
Rawson Thurber’s Skycraper is the illegitimate lovechild of Die Hard and The Towering Inferno, pitting one of the world’s most impressive and imposing structures against a skyscraper. Oh, the skyscraper is on fire, too.
And it has a name: The Pearl, a 200-plus-storey Hong Kong high-rise that’s essentially a self-contained vertical city. Complete with parks and waterfalls and the usual top-secret top-floor science stuff, it’s the brainchild of billionaire Zhao Long Ji (Chin Han). Skyscraper is the sort of movie from which you’d expect a first-act tour, to give a sense of the spatial geography, so that the audience understands where everything is in relation to everything else. But Skyscraper is also a lean, totally fat-free 90-minute late-summer blockbuster without time to spare, so what happens instead is characters stand around like automatons and spout clunky expository dialogue that details all the absurdly high-tech security features that will be important later.
It isn’t much time to get situated. And as everyone is busying themselves with explaining the minutiae of, say, the weird virtual reality gizmo we need to understand for the finale, it’s difficult to get a sense of why we should give a shit about these people when all hell breaks loose – which it does, quickly, with only a few cursory establishing shots to give the sense that this is definitely a very large, very ugly building.
But you already knew that – nobody would hire Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson to scale a building that wasn’t both large and ugly, and certainly not in the summer. In Skyscraper he plays Will Sawyer, a one-legged former Marine and FBI hardcase who, thanks to his physically and mentally debilitating injury, now works as a security consultant. He’s in town to analyse the Pearl’s safety when terrorists – led by Roland Møller – arrive to seize a McGuffin. Part of their plan is to set the middle floors alight to disable the fire-control systems, which leaves Will’s wife (Neve Campbell) and twins (McKenna Grace and Noah Cottrell) trapped on the supposedly-deserted residential floor.
You might recall writer-director Thurber from his previous collaboration with Johnson, Central Intelligence, or indeed from Dodgeball, and if you recall him from either of those projects you might also wonder why he has elected to play this one so straight. Skyscraper is riddled with cloying emotionality, which is a mode that suits neither Thurber as a writer nor Johnson as a star. And the screenplay’s only feint towards self-awareness is a brief acknowledgement that the whole thing is dumb, which most of us had already deduced from the trailers, the marketing, the cast and the premise.
We’re supposed to buy into Johnson as the likable, damaged everyman, but the reason that worked for Bruce Willis as John McClane is that Bruce Willis looked like a human being; The Rock looks, as Clive James once described Arnold Schwarzenegger, like a condom full of walnuts. And while the script is embarrassingly insisting that Will is thoroughly traumatized by the loss of his left lower-leg, the set pieces rely on him being an unstoppable death-defying superhuman, meaning that both the action and the characterisation are undermined by the same problem.
That isn’t to say that Johnson’s bottomless well of on-screen charisma is running dry, just that it isn’t enough to sustain a feature that relies on it entirely – especially not one like Skyscraper, which constantly works to undermine its star’s charm with weapons-grade preposterousness and grating, po-faced sincerity. Any raised eyebrows are pointed in the direction of a plot that boils down to, essentially, a bit of a spat over a flash drive.
Elsewhere, Neve Campbell is a welcome presence, coasting along on the novelty that she’s usually involved in better stuff, but she isn’t given much to do beyond dutifully follow her husband’s know-it-all instructions, while Taiwanese star Hannah Quinlivan is a scene-stealer who would have likely walked off with the movie had she been given the chance – which she wasn’t.
These days, Dwayne Johnson movies are a cultural phenomenon all their own, a litany of same-but-slightly-different artistic objects that are reliably stupid but equally-reliably entertaining, so you don’t judge them by the typical critical metrics. There’s no point. On that basis, Skyscraper is still inferior to something like Rampage or even San Andreas, though it does contain a scene in which The Rock climbs the titular edifice with duct tape wrapped around his hands and feet, like a DIY Spider-Man. That’ll please the film’s target demographic of pre-teen boys, and indeed pleased me; I just wish it was in a more entertaining movie.