‘Skyscraper’ Review: A Big Building, a Bigger Knockoff
Here is a curious aspect of Dwayne Johnson’s blockbuster action movies: Unlike most superheroes, he rarely concerns himself with saving the world. He is always much more focused on saving his friends and family. Like in Journey 2: The Mysterious Island, which is as much about his character bonding with his new stepson as it is about escaping a mysterious island. Or San Andreas, where Johnson’s helicopter pilot abandons his post to rescue his wife and daughter from the aftermath of a gigantic earthquake. Or the Fast & Furious franchise, where Johnson quickly transitioned from chasing Vin Diesel’s “family” to becoming one of its most loyal members. Even in Rampage, a movie about giant monsters wrecking Chicago, he’s way more worried about protecting his ape pal George than stopping him from demolishing the Sears Tower.
One wonders where this impulse comes from; whether it’s borne from Johnson’s personal passion for his own family, or it’s a more mercenary choice driven by test marketing and focus groups that have taught him that assuming the role of the ultimate family man is good for his brand and resonant with his audience. Someone should ask him sometime; I would love to know the answer.
Whatever the reason, it’s clearly a path Johnson has deliberately picked. He returns to it again with Skyscraper, where the systematic destruction of the tallest building in history is basically a colorful backdrop for a story of domestic reunification. Just look at the film’s poster, where The Rock is covered in grime and soot, but his wedding ring is gleaming and spotless. That’s no accident. His character, Will Sawyer, is the prototypical Dwayne Johnson Hero Dad: A former FBI agent and hostage negotiator who retired from law enforcement when he got married. Now he works a safer, quieter job as a security consultant and dotes on his wife Sarah (Neve Campbell) and their two kids.
An old FBI buddy (Pablo Schreiber) hooks Will up with a plush gig: Inspecting “The Pearl,” a Hong Kong skyscraper that’s three times taller than the Empire State Building. The brainchild of Chinese billionaire Zhao Min Zhi (Chin Han), the Pearl just needs Will’s sign-off before it’s ready to open. And wouldn’t you know it, just as Will heads to an offsite facility to give the all-clear, a whole bunch of armed bad guys break in, start a fire, and shut down the Pearl’s automated fire defense system. And wouldn’t you also know it, Will’s family just happens to be the only ones inside the Pearl with the mercenaries when it turns into the world’s biggest Tiki torch. That means Will has to find a way back inside the building while it’s burning, and climb up to his family. Also, he’s wanted for murder at the time and the police are on his tail. (It’s kind of a long story.)
Will’s solo battle to save his family places Skyscraper in the long tradition of Die Hard ripoffs. Typically though, Die Hard ripoffs at least mix up the story’s setting; Die Hard on a bus, or Die Hard on a boat, or Die Hard in Game 7 of the Stanley Cup Finals. Skyscraper is basically just Die Hard in a Die Hard movie, with a dash of The Towering Inferno and the ending of Enter the Dragon. Will doesn’t lose his shoes, but he does use duct tape to save the day, and he does wind up swinging precariously from a rope on the exterior of the building.
The building itself is Skyscraper’s best special effect. The Pearl really does look like it’s looming over Hong Kong, and when Johnson is dangling off one of its wind turbines and the camera cranes down to show the hundreds of feet of air below his feet, the illusion of height is convincing enough to make your heart skip a beat. The Pearl looks real; the fire, for the most part, does not, and it’s odd how little of a threat it seems to pose in the film. Other than some light coughing (Will’s son has asthma), it barely factors into the story. It really is just an excuse to get the action going and then keeping the characters moving. (It’s also a way to make this movie slightly different than Die Hard.)
The Die Hard formula demands an everyman hero; one guy versus an army of gun-toting thugs isn’t quite as suspenseful if the one guy has chest muscles the size of 32-ounce steaks. To that end, writer/director Rawson Marshall Thurber gives Will a disability, a prosthetic leg that becomes both a source of tension when it bends or nearly breaks, and a prop he can use in surprising ways during fights and chases. And Johnson plays things less broadly, with fewer quips and million-dollar smiles than he typically does in action mode.
Both choices make Johnson seem a little more ordinary. But do we want Johnson to be ordinary? Skyscraper downplays one of the main reasons we go to see an action movie starring The Rock. As a result, our beloved pro wrestler turned movie star feels a little miscast, even as he gets to once again assume his favorite role as the ultimate superdad. In the end The Pearl feels like a symbol of Skyscraper as a whole: The construction work is solid but the whole things falls apart anyway.