Director: Rawson Marshall Thurber
Starring: Dwayne Johnson, Neve Campbell, Chin Han
Length: 1hr 42m
In the words of the Great One himself, the Rock has done it all. After conquering the world of Professional Wrestling, Dwayne Johnson turned his sights to Hollywood, where – with nearly two decades of action movie mayhem under his belt – he became the highest paid actor in the world. Yet, despite such a lengthy rap sheet, it is hard to name one Johnson vehicle which has risen above the level of mediocre. Nevertheless, he continues to flex his muscles at the box office, proving his worth with recent hits Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle, grossing nearly one billion dollars worldwide, and video game adaptation Rampage, which, despite disappointing domestically, performed well abroad. Johnson looks to strike box office gold once again with his latest film Skyscraper, which lives up to the lowly ambitions it sets itself, but fails to aim higher than trashy crowd-pleasing fun.
Johnson stars as former FBI operative Will Sawyer, who is tasked with inspecting the safety measures of ‘The Pearl’, the fictional tallest building in the world located in Hong Kong, prior to its opening. Sawyer, brandishing a prosthetic leg, is joined by wife Sarah (Neve Campbell) and their two children. Instigated by a nefarious band of mercenaries, a fire soon breaks out within the building, and Will is promptly framed for the crime. With the safety measures failing, and his family trapped inside the blaze, Sawyer must battle his way back into the Pearl, rescue his loved ones, and defeat the gun-toting baddies pursuing him at every turn.
It is a very familiar premise, warranting comparison with its obvious antecedent Die Hard, as well as the film which inspired the aforementioned action movie classic, Irwin Allen’s The Towering Inferno. Unfortunately, Skyscraper does little to distinguish itself from its forebears, choosing instead to weave a very predictable plot. The film could have easily won brownie points by acknowledging the familiarity of events with a wink and a nod, but it fails to do so, playing things fairly straight throughout.
Johnson is perhaps most underserved by the film’s paint-by-numbers script. Failing to take advantage of the actor’s natural charisma, Will Sawyer is written as a stoic everyman, making the role one of Johnson’s most forgettable to date. The film as a whole would have been vastly improved had Sawyer been imagined with a tad more wit. One is left yearning for the days of Bruce Willis and Kurt Russell, who played their ultra-masculine leading roles with an ounce of sarcasm. Some of the film’s better moments occur when the veil of stoicism slips and Johnson is allowed to showcase more of his personality (one scene wherein Sawyer sneaks a swig of vodka whilst cleaning his wounds drew one of the bigger laughs from the audience). The film tries desperately to convince us that Sawyer is an average Joe facing insurmountable odds, in the vein of John McClane. Yet, Johnson’s casting appears counter-productive; the Rock’s stature is so enormous that – prosthetic leg or not – it is nearly impossible to buy his turn as a Blue-collar everyman.
The film’s other actors fail to impress. Neve Campbell is fine as Sarah, but, with the material she is given, it is hard to imagine a better performance. Danish actor Roland Møller makes for an unconvincing lead antagonist, while Chin Han, playing the Pearl’s billionaire owner, does little of note.
The film’s main selling point is quite obviously its numerous action sequences; however, these prove fairly uninspired throughout. The most effective set piece sees Johnson climbing a giant tower crane, dangling perilously from an astounding height. The sequence has a visceral thrill to it, one which is absent throughout the rest of the film. A recurring gag involving duct tape and its seemingly innumerable uses garnered a few laughs, but did not aid the suspension of disbelief one iota. ‘The film fails to take advantage of one of its most intriguing concepts; Will Sawyer’s prosthetic leg. My issue in this regard has little to do with the realities of life as an amputee. Rather, I take issue with the film’s failure to develop this aspect of Johnson’s character. At the start of the film, Sawyer is shown taking painkillers, suggesting that his amputated leg is a continual source of considerable discomfort. Yet, throughout the rest of the film, Sawyer appears completely unencumbered; running, leaping, and battling baddies with ease. One of the key tenets of good storytelling is setup and payoff. Generally, this involves three steps; setup a plot point, remind the audience of said plot point, and finally pay it off. Skyscraper establishes Sawyer’s amputated leg as a plot point, but fails to develop it further. As a result, when Johnson kisses his prosthetic, the film is attempting to pay off something which it did not adequately set up. Thus, a scene which should feel triumphant and cathartic falls flat, lacking a satisfying emotional payoff.
This is Skyscraper’s biggest shortcoming; Will Sawyer’s journey is entirely external. He has no inner goal or conflict; he does not see himself as less of a man owing to his amputated leg, nor is his family life in crisis. Again, taking Die Hard as an example, the strength of John McClane as a character is his relatability. Much of said relatability draws from the fact that McClane’s problems are not merely the terrorists within the Nakatomi Plaza; he is an ageing, schlubby cop, with a worsening widow’s peak and an estranged wife. The film’s emotional payoff, which sees McClane reunite with wife Holly, is as important as his defeating the villain. By contrast, Will Sawyer – beyond the threat posed by the film’s weak antagonists – has no real challenges or shortcomings to overcome, and thus has no room to grow as a character.
Despite my complaints, Skyscraper is not a bad film; yet, it is not so bad that it may someday become a retroactive classic either. The film has a decent cast, but the poor script does little with them. The greatest tragedy is Johnson’s casting in the lead role, which provides the actor precious few opportunities to shine. The action scenes are mostly forgettable, barring a few highlights, and the plot does little with its concepts. Ultimately, the film aims for average and hits the mark with precision; Skyscraper is a perfectly okay blockbuster destined for Channel Five’s Sunday afternoon movie slot.
Skyscraper has disappointed at the domestic box office, leading many to suggest that Johnson’s star is diminishing. However, the film has already recouped its production budget following a massive opening in China. Indeed, the film is so clearly tailored for the lucrative Chinese market – particularly in terms of setting and casting – that one is left wondering; did the film evolve from a genuine creative spark, or was it all merely a calculated investment? The motives are clear; Johnson has another hit to list on his resume, thus reasserting his place as the big dog of the box office, while writer-director Rawson Marshall Thurber and Universal Pictures reap the rewards. Either way, the film really does not deserve this much thought.