Ah, how the mighty have fallen. Not really, actually. That just sounded about right for a movie called Skyscraper starring man who basically is one. But it does touch the surface as to how 2018 has shaped up on the big screen for Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, with his two movies headlined solely by himself failing to leave much of an impression. In case you forgot, back in April debuted the video game adaptation Rampage, which, though a hit overseas, barely failed to crack $100 million domestically, it having been produced for far more than that. Time will only tell where Skyscraper will fall, but so far it seems it might fare even worse, unable to differentiate itself enough from the films it’s drawing inspiration from – *ahem* Die Hard *ahem* – to label itself a must-see, especially amid the other summer action sequels it’s bookended by in Ant-Man and the Wasp and The Equalizer 2. Regardless, the story is here that Dwayne Johnson’s latest effort lacks a very clear identity as it relies too heavily on him to give the film the sizzle it needs, leaving it in a tonal flatness that ensures the viewer forgets it as soon as it’s over.
In Hong Kong, the building known as “The Pearl,” newly christened the world’s tallest, stands at 3,500 feet and 225 stories. Its lower half already open to the public, owner Zhao Long Ji (Chin Han) plans to open the upper residential half in the near future, as soon as former FBI agent Will Sawyer (Dwayne Johnson) completes the security checklist he was hired by Zhao to approve. However, while Sawyer is blocks away, “The Pearl” comes under siege by armed terrorists – led by Kores Botha (Roland Møller) – who promptly set fire to the 96th floor and disable the building’s fire prevention systems. As the terrorists work to make their way up to the penthouse where Zhao is holed up, Sawyer must avoid arrest by the police – now that he’s been labeled the sole mastermind – and somehow find his way into the building. Because living with him on the 96th floor to test the residential suites has been his family, his wife Sarah (Neve Campbell) and their two children are currently trapped inside. Sawyer must do whatever it takes to rescue them, which will also mean undermining the terrorists’ plans, whatever they may entail.
Now, this is a movie that’s poised to live and die by the Rock. Aside from Campbell, who many will recognize from her 90s film projects like Scream, it’s really Johnson who’s doing the heavy lifting. And as the film takes a slightly more stern tone than one might expect from the director of Dodgeball: A True Underdog Story – surely due to the stakes and Sawyer’s subsequent character motivations – Johnson most certainly suffers for it. It hardly needs to be said just how charismatic he is on and off camera; I mean, the guy was a wrestler and will likely be the 46th President of the United States. But here the film takes great strides to ground him as a believable character. He sports a grizzled, salt-and-pepper look that makes him look more weary than he ever has, and not to mention Sawyer is working with a prosthetic leg after his left was blown off below the knee in a hostage rescue mission years earlier. Now, as someone with two of those things, I’m all for representation in my action movies, but there’s a reason you never saw Mark McGuire walk up to the plate with a wiffle ball bat. Dwayne Johnson is likewise an indestructible demigod, and you don’t pay to see him play with half a deck. Films like Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle and the Fast and Furious franchise perhaps understood this best, and they made all of the money. Not to mention the prosthesis is used more as a plot device than a crutch, and if you’ve seen the trailers, you already know what I’m talking about. If we’re really deconstructing the film as a shameless Die Hard clone – and we’re not, it’s plain enough – one can’t help but think back to just how perfect Bruce Willis was as the cocky and quick-on-his-bare-feet John McClane. It gave the groundbreaking project the levity it needed whilst still providing the bloody thrills. Skyscraper is rated PG-13, so that pretty much says it all.
As far as supporting characters are concerned, it’s great to see Neve Campbell in something of this magnitude ever since her aforementioned slasher series concluded with Scream 4 in 2011. And it’s worth noting that the film doesn’t relegate her to the archetype of damsel in distress, giving her enough to do without upstaging Johnson. However, where the film really falls flat is with its antagonists, who are so incredibly bland and European it’s hardly a wonder they have names to begin with. No disrespect to Møller and company here, but – and damn it, I’m going back to Die Hard – the film really could have used a heavy dose of Alan Rickman’s nefarious yet animated Hans Gruber to make the villain scenes – for lack of a better word – interesting. I’m definitely not saying you should simply default to formula and what’s already been proven fresh, but when you don’t and it doesn’t work, one can’t help but wonder what probably should have been. Lastly, while we’re still talking about supporting characters, Skyscraper may just feature the dumbest cops in a movie this side of Seth Rogen and Bill Hader in Superbad. Reginald VelJohnson, where hath thou gone?
Anyway, as I’ve mentioned, this film comes courtesy of the more comedically oriented Rawson Marshall Thurber, who directed such hits as Dodgeball and most recently – and also with Johnson – Central Intelligence, the latter of which this writer severely disliked, but that’s beside the point. I suppose Central Intelligence in fact is a proper bridge between this film and Thurber’s previous efforts, it blending action and comedy. And boy, could Skyscraper have used some comedy. Sure, there’s some small, light moments to break up the proceedings, and admittedly are pretty welcome, but they’re so few and far between everything else plays out as merely a slog to get through. The story is far too predictable to pull any punches, as Johnson literally swings from one set-piece to another with zero gravity, also literally, so every time the tone tries to do the plot thematic justice, everything simply becomes tedium for the audience to sit through, waiting for the conclusion it already knows is coming. What Skyscraper doesn’t seem to realize is that it is and should be utterly ridiculous, the stunts are ridiculous, and any sane person need only think to realize Sawyer likely would have died at least four or five times doing the things he does. It perhaps needed a director with the sensibilities of Paul Verhoeven or Tony Scott to inject the insanity with a level of – dare I say it – fun, that way we can cheer along with the people of Hong Kong as Johnson cheats death on multiple occasions. The way it is, though, Skyscraper is too CGI-laden and perfunctory to provide the thrills it’s promised.
Still, Johnson makes the film difficult to outright dislike. He along with it is earnest and competently made enough to warrant putting it on during a lazy Sunday with no football. At worst, it’s 102 minutes of things happening in front of your face that you can jettison from your consciousness as soon as it’s over. And if you wisely skipped out on Rampage this spring but still need your Rock fix, this one is slightly better and less likely to make you toss your physics textbook out the window. Still, when you have the biggest – again, literally – actor on the planet flexing his way to 3,500 feet in the air, you want to live up to his machismo. And Skyscraper doesn’t. For now, when you want megastars scaling the side of the largest building on Earth, refer back to Tom Cruise in Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol.
Final Score: 4/10