Dwayne Johnson in Skyscraper
If the era of the movie star is truly over, someone should probably inform Dwayne Johnson. Unlike the action stars of yore, he doesn’t take himself tremendously seriously; his promotional appearances often tend to present his films as the audience-friendly blockbusters that they usually are and little else. He fully embraces his status as a larger-than-life human off the silver screen — so why are his films so often devoid of personality? Skyscraper is the latest in a series of drab, conveyor-belt action movies that are seemingly designed to rein in its star’s outsized charisma, to ends that I don’t fully understand.
It’s not just that Skyscraper is a dumb and preposterous blockbuster — that’s pretty much something we take for granted from the get-go after knowing its simple premise and No-Name-like title. It’s that even within that scope, writer/director Rawson Marshall Thurber struggles to make anything out of the movie that hasn’t already been made plain by the star/premise/title combo. It’s a purely utilitarian blockbuster, one entirely devoid of anything resembling a point-of-view or reason to be. The strangest thing is that there are much worse movies than Skyscraper, but it’s hard to imagine a more anonymous one.
Will Sawyer (Johnson) is a former FBI agent who has turned to security consulting after a job gone wrong cost him his leg below the knee. The traumatic experience changed his life forever, but it’s also where he met his wife Sarah (Neve Campbell), an army physician, and therefore the tragedy is directly responsible for the perfect little family life he leads. A hot tip from a former colleague (Pablo Schreiber) leads him to a consulting job on the world’s tallest, most high-tech skyscraper. The job, of course, is a set-up — he’s being used as a patsy between the powerful architect (Chin Han) and a group of terrorists led by the admittedly very-dopely-named Kores Botha (Roland Moller). Sawyer is so good at security, however, that he accidentally prevents the double-cross from happening, which in turn leads to the building being set on fire with his family still inside.
The easiest comparison is definitely to The Towering Inferno, the bonafide mack daddy of all movies about a big skyscraper on fire, but the truth is that the fire is relatively incidental to the plot of Skyscraper. It’s seemingly not hot enough to actually matter when you’re surrounded by it and, since the security systems are so sophisticated, the fire is more of a hindrance for most of the film than it is an actual threat. No, Skyscraper is taking inspiration from a much more frequently imitated staple — it’s Die Hard all the way, from the generically European terrorists to the endless amounts of climbing, pushing people off ledges and using supernatural upper body strength to hoist yourself up the perfectly smooth side of a building for 90 storeys.
There’s no denying that this shit is dumb: Johnson jumps something like 120 feet laterally without so much as a running start, there’s at least two separate scenes of jumping across a fiery chasm, important information is held on a portable hard drive (in 2018?!), there’s a leather-clad female assassin with an asymmetrical haircut that clearly belongs in a movie that isn’t this and the Rock takes out a fucking sword (?!) at some point and yet this movie is as bland and as vanilla as action movies get. It’s slick and smooth and has nothing to say, a true triumph of everyone putting in maximum effort for extremely middling rewards.
As consistently preposterous as Skyscraper is, it doesn’t have much of a sense of humour about itself. Without necessarily being played with the utmost straight face of a mid-period van Damme movie, it’s too straight-laced and too simplistic to make its largesses palatable. In a film with a little more pizzazz, it would be a cheer-worthy moment when Johnson finally uses his prosthetic leg to clock a guy and/or save his own life; here, it’s just a thing that happens amongst all the other things that happen between the opening and closing credits.
Director Thurber is best known for his work in comedies — he’s the man behind Dodgeball and We’re the Millers, but perhaps more tellingly, he helmed Johnson’s action comedy Central Intelligence a few years back. Even without knowing his background, his work here seems unsure and overwhelmed. Many of the action scenes feel salvaged rather than sculpted, and even its most outrageous flights of fancy (like a shootout in a high-falutin’ hall of mirrors) come across as scattershot bouts of missed opportunity at best. There are parts that work simply because we are conditioned as audiences to enjoy explosions and beefy Samoan men hanging off ledges with one hand. I’d call it begrudgingly competent if it wasn’t for the fact that so many of its setpieces fall flat.
Skyscraper feels oddly regressive in a lot of ways. Though it goes out of its way to have completely unobjectionable politics, to depict its protagonist as the very picture of an upstanding family man, to avoid making any of the characters into princesses to be rescued (which they make very textual when Johnson’s pre-teen daughter insists on being referred to as a king) and generally smooth itself out to at least present as a movie of its time, the fact is that the barebones plotting and haphazard direction hearkens back to an era when promising audiences a lot of special effects was enough to get asses in seats. Now that every single movie in the multiplex is an actual marvel of modern technology, there’s absolutely no point in serving me warmed-over Die Hard in a yellow can with ACTION MOVIE written across it. Dwayne Johnson (charismatic and ripped as he is) is not enough, a shitload of fire is not enough, a really tall building is not enough. Skyscraper is not enough. ■
Skyscraper opens in theatres on Friday, July 13. Watch the trailer here: