Director: Rawson Marshall Thurber
Stars: Dwayne Johnson, Neve Campbell, Chin Han
Around the time that Arnold Schwarzenegger hung up his spurs as the most gigantic action hero in the world in order to play governor, Dwayne ‘The Rock’ Johnson was amping up his transition from the sports world to our movie theatres. It took him a few years to get his weight under him – so to speak – but its come to feel as though the baton has been well and truly passed. Not least following Schwarzenegger’s faltering slight return.
No, big-grinnin’ action cinema is Dwayne’s arena now, at least until his own seemingly inevitable run for office. Right now though, he’s king. And he’s practically bulletproof. Not even a calamitous misfire like last summer’s Baywatch can wrong-foot him. Since then he’s scored big with both mega-hit Jumanji: Welcome To The Jungle and the well-received Rampage, both of which succeeded in large part thanks to his on-screen charisma. And now here’s Skyscraper, self-evidently the dumbest of the bunch (which is saying something; just look at what Rampage was about).
A Die Hard clone that doesn’t for a moment attempt to conceal this notion, it is the realisation of writer/director Rawson Marshall Thurber, whom Johnson previously worked with on Central Intelligence. Johnson plays former FBI hostage negotiator turned security consultant Will Sawyer. Ten years ago he got his foot blown off by a perp in a suicide vest. But it ain’t all bad news; he’s built his own business off of the back of this set back, and it even introduced him to his wife Sarah (Neve Campbell). They even have two adorable kids. All right, Will.
Skyscraper finds them staying in Hong Kong on the premises of a state-of-the-art skyscraper named The Pearl; brainchild of limitless billionaire Zhao Long Ji (Chin Han). It’s the tallest building in the world, and Will’s on site reconciling the final stages of his approvals. The family are the building’s first guests, staying on the 96th floor. For scale, this is around a third of the way up the colossal structure, which also features a multi-storey arboretum, a penthouse suite with a virtual reality sphere (obvs) and some kind of massive swishy choppy power system that looks like a cross between an egg whisk and a piece of spurious public art as you might find on the grounds of an identikit shopping centre. Bits of it spin and you’ll find out why – Galaxy Quest style – a little later.
Of course, it’s not long before security is compromised by Bad Guys™, Will’s locked out, and a raging fire is threatening to toast Sarah and the kids alive.
“He’s got my daughter, and its her life that matters to me, not mine,” so Will says much later on in the picture, but its a line that explains a lot about a character who immediately starts springing to whatever death-defying aerial acrobatics he can put his mind to in order to rescue his loved ones. Let’s not mince words here. Will is totally insane, fascinatingly unable to comprehend what danger even is.
And he’s massive. So when he decides to climb a crane in order to swing himself into the building several floors above the 96th, there’s no reason to believe he couldn’t break into the crane’s tiny (and functioning) elevator. But no, he climbs the outside of the crane, like King Kong in a business suit. And he makes it up there in, seemingly, minutes. He’s not even tired or a bit sore! And then, yes, he flings himself into the building (in a sequence that the movie’s promotional team have rightly made much out of). And this is just what he does to get back into the sphere of action. John McLane just walked in the door.
But despite appearances Skyscraper ain’t no Die Hard, and what Thurber (I love that name) is clearly going for here is as many vertiginous marvels as he can cram into 100 minutes. With that vast arboretum, he is even able to manifest such thrills inside the building. Everything here is geared to a bunch of pre-ordained set pieces, good-sense be damned. If you don’t like heights, this movie is here to mess your shit up.
And that is what makes Skyscraper so much fun.
The plot is terrible and boring (the reason the Bad Guys™ are doing this? Don’t even). The physics are… unusual. The tone just barely this side of self-parody. But Skyscraper isn’t about anything rational. It’s about that feeling you get in the pit of your stomach when you’re on a rollercoaster and the Gs hit. It’s about good ol’ fashioned cheesy truisms like there’s nothing that can’t be fixed without duct tape, or turning it off and on again. Skyscraper is unashamedly nostalgic for the kind of movies that landed regularly twenty years ago. High-concept action movies, that were low on brains but filled you up on big, big emotions and roiling clouds of fire.
Speaking of which, for UK audiences, it still feels a little too soon to be eking this much entertainment out of a tower block on fire. Memories are a little too fresh. Fortunately, the geographic terrain of Skyscraper escapes from ungainly connotations by being a) really fucking stupid and b) almost totally deserted. Aside from Will’s family, the billionaire and the Bad Guys™, all we’re really witnessing is astronomical property damage. The ‘real people’ of Hong Kong are gawping spectators to the madness happening in the skies above them. The movie is so far removed from reality that it doesn’t feel remotely political or contentious.
And thus it achieves a kind of weird purity. Disaster cinema comes with a set of expectations, and they are largely met here. Action cinema likewise. The minute you see Noah Taylor you know he’s a Bad Guy™, because he’s a British actor in an action film. There are rules. Thurber sticks to them, and he has Johnson’s charisma swinging from high wires. There’s no ‘I’ in team. But there’s a lot of ‘crap’ in Skyscraper and in spite of this its a whole load of brainless fun.
Which is all it needs to be.