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Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson is one of the biggest and highest paid movie stars in the world. His rise to fame harkens back to some of the movie stars of the past, before films became more marketable on characters, concepts, and talent behind the camera. People went to go see older Arnold Schwarzenegger, Tom Cruise, Clint Eastwood, and Julia Roberts movies just to see the new thing the actor was doing, coasting on their star power alone. Johnson has captured much of that same feeling, turning himself into his own franchise as his films essentially boil down to “The Rock versus…” with new hiccups and obstacles thrown in his way.
To his credit, audiences (including this reviewer) seem to always show up, especially international markets. The Rock vs. Cobra Commander? $375 million worldwide for G.I. Joe: Retalliation. The Rock vs. Kevin Hart? $216 worldwide for Central Intelligence. The Rock vs. an Earthquake? Nearly $500 million for San Andreas. The Rock vs. Disney? $650 million worldwide for Moana. The Rock vs. Jumanji? Almost $1 billion worldwide. The Rock vs. Vin Diesel? $4.5 billion since he joined The Fast and Furious franchise. People flock to see The Rock, and pitting him not only against a burning building a la The Towering Inferno, but also violent terrorists a la Die Hard, is set to offer up another international hit, even if he is the best thing about Skyscraper.
As former FBI agent and amputee Will Sawyer, Johnson lives in the newest, tallest building in the world with his family, staying on site as a private security assessor. Just before the building is set to open it’s residential sections, a group of international terrorists set fire to the building as part of their scheme. This endangers the lives of his wife and kids, and Sawyer will stop at nothing, even if it means being initially framed for the escalating violence, to save them.
If the plot seems like you’ve heard it before, it’s because you have. Skyscraper doesn’t make any qualms about mashing together plot points from previous action films, often times serving as a direct ode to capers such as Mission: Impossible, Cliffhanger, and yes, Die Hard. It does rely on a healthy suspension of reality, especially in some design choices of the titular building itself. Fortunately, Johnson serves as an earnest and valuable anchor for the film, a rock, if you will, that makes you root for him and the good guys the whole way.
Dwayne Johnson can do this kind of movie in his sleep, but I don’t think the man is capable of sleepwalking through a role. You can tell from the press that this has been another in a long line of passion projects for him. The role of Sawyer gives him the opportunity to plays things a bit more vulnerable than usual, literally handicapping our biggest action star by making him an amputee. Not only does it serve as a unique case of an underrepresented living situation, but it does genuinely serve well in more than a few sequences of both action and the calm between it. Johnson deserves credit for acting his ass off in the film, display more anguish, determination, and vulnerability than seen in any of his previous films.
Neve Campbell plays Sawyer’s wife Sarah, and she holds her own, getting the opportunity to be a badass mother by also being a very capable former Navy medical officer and foreign affairs expert. It’s also refreshing to see an action hero with a multiracial, functioning, healthy family with a wife who matches not only his skills but also his age (Johnson is 46, Campbell is 44), rather than some of the lopsided silver screen romances of the past.
Serving as fellow protagonists, but not necessarily outright allies, Ng Chin Han and Byron Mann play their roles well as the owner and driving force behind the skyscraper and the lead incident officer on the ground, respectively. Pablo Schreiber also has some time as a former agent and friend of Johnson’s character, although his character is a bit under cooked and his screen time is surprisingly short. That is where the the big weaknesses of Skyscraper begin to show.
Roland Møller serves as the lead villain of the picture, and he simply lacks the gravitas and clout to stand a believable chance against The Rock, even with a one leg advantage. Hannah Quinlivan and Noah Taylor serve as his lackeys, but neither of them do anything memorable. They are all acting about one level above their means, meaning that Møller could have been a thoroughly convincing second-in-command, as long as he had someone on the level of Hans Gruber as his leader. The villains are simply weak sauce, nameless mercenary thugs with no personality or names. Quinlivan and Taylor, the only bad guys with anything unique about them, are giving nothing to do or taken out way too early to matter.
Director Rawson Marshall Thurber admittedly has a lifetime free pass in my book for writing and directing Dodgeball: A True Underdog Story back in 2004, and he serves as a capable action director for Skyscraper. While there aren’t any creative flairs that stand out, he does a great job of blocking out certain scenes, including two well-publicized sequences where Johnson jumps from a crane to the building and when he traverses outside using duct tape to stick his hands to the windows. Those scenes are clearly the centerpieces of the film, and they do play like gangbusters. It is clear that Thurber, who served as both writer and director, not only has a wonderful working relationship with his lead superstar, but also a genuine love for the action pictures of the 70s, 80s, and 90s.
Thurber’s strengths clearly lie on the disaster side of the action, not only in pitting Johnson against the building, but in also escalating the raging inferno throughout the film. It’s most effective sequences are designed around escaping the fire and destruction that is progressively following our characters further up the building, while anything involving the actual terrorists simply falls flat. Perhaps it could’ve used better casting, more personality in the villains, or simply just more of Johnson taking them out, which comes near the end of the film and isn’t nearly as satisfying as it should be. They just don’t hold a candle to Gruber, Under Siege’s Strannix, Cliffhanger’s Qualen, or The Rock’s Francis X. Hummel.
Admittedly, the lead character of Will Sawyer is that of a FORMER soldier, one who even states that he’s “laid down his sword” long ago. It at least makes a bit of sense, from a character motivation standpoint, why he wouldn’t be so bloodthirsty. But the film rarely gives him an opportunity to interact with the villains, and when they do, they’re not trying to kill him, but rather use his family as hostages to get him to do their bidding. It certainly seems as if the stakes would’ve been raised higher had Johnson been not only trying to beat the fire and the elements, but also trying to beat the terrorists trying to kill him, rather than having them simply wait for his arrival to pull their “we have someone you love” card.
When all is said and done, Skyscraper is definitely a combination of disaster film and terrorist action film. Johnson crushes his action scenes, showing a grit in the difficulties he’s face with in a way we haven’t seen from him before. Those disaster sequences, where fire is blazing and exploding around our characters, are the most harrowing and well done of the film. Sadly, it falls very flat when anything regarding the villains comes around, feeling as if many opportunities were missed in characterization and memorability. It serves as a perfectly decent throwback to the action movies of old, and could stack up well against a Towering Inferno, Daylight, or even San Andreas. That being said, Skyscraper is no Die Hard, but I think it knows that it can’t reach those heights, it still deserves points for the effort.
The Final Pop
Skyscraper is an effective action disaster picture that doesn’t quite hit it’s full mark while still offering up plenty big screen thrills. Led by an earnest, dedicated performance from Dwayne Johnson, it’s strengths lie in it’s lead family unit and disaster aspects, while it’s weaknesses come from weak, uninteresting villains. Even though it has some glaring deficiencies, I’ll still see The Rock in whatever he’s making next. Microwaved Popcorn