By Joe Hammerschmidt
“Ladies and gentlemen, I give you a six-and-a-half-billion-dollar chimney.”
When we last saw the former Rock of WWE legends, A-list actor Dwayne Johnson, he was racing against time to prevent total global destruction at the hands of genetically enhanced feral animals in a fit of Rampage. The moneymaking name could easily lend his name to most films and make them a marginal hit, likely more so overseas. Going into a film like Skyscraper with Johnson reuniting with a director he clearly loved working with and pairing up an international cast, in a world-class filming location (Vancouver doubling for Hong Kong), albeit with an overwhelming coziness giving the film a shameful coat of tree sap aiding in any demise of common sense. Not that it’s any terrible, Mr. Johnson can still make the most of any underwhelming script. It’s the bare influences which remind us this has all done before, and more effectively. But kudos for effort.
One may discover almost immediately what writer/director Rawson Marshall Thurber, who last worked with Johnson on the chemistry-driven buddy comedy Central Intelligence, but may be forever known strictly for Dodgeball, had been thinking in his first pitches to get this greenlit as a vehicle for his new bestie. “Die Hard meets Towering Inferno”, mixed with a smidgeon of Hard Boiled, and a scaled-back San Andreas aesthetic. The combination of influences couldn’t be any less simple, and rather lazy, aloof, perhaps even dumbed down, just a tad; as if this monument effort possessed any intellectualism for viewers, to begin with. For starters, yes; it has a rather dignified beginning, with Will Sawyer (Johnson) acting the ever-responsible authority figure. A former Navy seal and FBI hostage negotiator, his current forte is security management, stationed with his family in the energetic realm of Hong Kong, and all while putting the past in the rearview when a random accident caused the loss of his right leg,
replaced with a prosthetic. His client: the financially ruthless Zhao Long Ji (Chin Han), owner of what’s fictionally declared the world’s tallest free-standing building, and in Sawyer’s hands the safest in the region, known simply as The Pearl. One-part urban development, one-part lofty penthouse suites, one-part secretive business collective, this elusive pillar of engineering is more than ready to open its doors to the public, Sawyer and his brood; wife Sara (Neve Campbell), son Henry (Noah Cottrell) and daughter Georgia (McKenna Roberts), literally the first residential occupants. It’s all thanks to former naval colleague and business partner Ben (a rather underused Pablo Schreiber), whose life is used as a calling card for a higher threat waiting many floors above the Sawyer’s cozy apartment.
Once again, anyone going into Skyscraper not thinking much of the Die Hard influence, take great heed: it comes in heavy, almost as if it were a high-budget, high-concept remake lacking in the IP and in any originality. And the highest red flag falls with the unlikely nemesis, Gruber clone Kores Botha (Roland Møller, last seen in The Commuter). I won’t divulge too deep into his laundry list of offenses for spoiler prevention, yet it couldn’t be more obvious how ill-defined, how slow to develop, how lacking the character is, not contributing much aside from starting the pivotal fire putting the action in second gear, after only 20 minutes of nearly pointless exposition.
Thurber and Johnson clearly have the most fun when all cylinders are firing, and the adventurous peril runs to the top floor. The grouping of key action sequences really doesn’t disappoint, yet they don’t quite suspend any disbelief. Nothing that could be accomplished in such an outlandish script could ever be based in the real world: climbing up a giant crane, catwalking against an inch of one’s life with mere string, surviving a digital hall of mirrors, and a few minor helicopter mishaps. The material which made up the film’s pivotal post-Super Bowl sneak is only improved on marginally in its respectively wider context; a grand shame, cause when it all works together, it’s enjoyable to watch.
The rest of the film remains heavily disjointed, from its poor lack of sufficient backstory to fuel character’s ambitions, especially on Johnson’s part. The prosthetic leg is only used as a framing device with a small payoff at the midway point, which is then discarded and likely forgotten. Most of the ancillary characters are either considerably forgettable or hard to take seriously, some fantastic talent wasted upon to fill these stock characters. Most glaring would be Schreiber, who is sacrificed to the plot momentum gods for good intentions; and Noah Taylor appearing as Ji’s sniveling secretary with a small secret, that like most other present story quirks will again appear obvious after one moment spent with the character, albeit underdeveloped to offer anything greater in quality. Even character actor Byron Mann is given so little to work with or offer to the audience as a local police inspector assigned to the incidents from the ground.
Miss Campbell is clearly no slouch, making a strong film return after focusing more on the TV side, and surviving the House of Cards exodus. Despite not quite keeping her action flick physicality consistent on her own, I still found myself smiling over just how much of a mom part it was written as. Her chemistry with Dwayne isn’t as easy to fawn over, but her energy in keeping her chicks out of danger while Dad scales a dangerous building is too much fun to pass up on its own. And the building itself is rather a beauty to catch eyes on, both inside and out. Yes, a few extra ounces of VFX may cheapen the impact, but it’s still enough to possibly rival the strict apocalyptic style of last month’s Hotel Artemis. With past influences in mind, the talented combination of Helen Jarvis’s (Watchmen) art direction and Jim Bissell’s (Suburbicon) overall design eye is quite serviceable, post-modern even, but compatible with the heavy CGI and green-screen work that’s nothing short of apparent, if not a complete eyesore.
Skyscraper will earn its place in cinematic history, not as a masterpiece of its genre boundaries, nor as an absolute dumpster fire of disdain. Like other action films this year running in the same lane, it’ll stay somewhere in the middle, rewatchable enough to keep in the background while one is cooking dinner. So, if one can’t spend the $12 for an evening showtime (3D may not be necessary if one is inclined), waiting for its eventual HBO premiere will be just as sufficient. The hardcore DJ fans will be most pleased with their hero in his third satisfying character-driven lead in a seven-month span, once more making the most of an otherwise hastily prepared film project. Yes, it’s absurdist, a little bit rushed, unwilling to interject and lacking 85% in potential likeability. Where it falls short in the basic parts of what makes a half-decent film, it makes up for in an established star captaining a confident cruise ship back on course. Fingers crossed he won’t screw that film up too. (C-)
Skyscraper opens in most area theaters this weekend; rated PG-13 for sequences of gun violence and action, and for brief strong language; 102 minutes.