According to Dwayne “President The Rock” Johnson, Skyscraper is his love letter to the action heroes of yore. It’s his love letter to Die Hard, The Towering Inferno; to Bruce Willis, to Steve McQueen, to an era of action thrillers which are all now reaching middle age. When The Rock first started appearing in action films, the discussion followed as to whether or not he would be able to fill the shoes of Arnold Schwarzenegger as America’s leading action man. I know I certainly had my doubts, but those doubts have long since been put to bed. Time has shown that The Rock was the perfect candidate for the job. He has fulfilled and exceeded all expectations. Time has also shown that the action landscape has changed in many ways, some good, some bad, and that the brand of action hero he replaced is actually deceased. This is the way things go, and I’m all in to witness the amorphous landscape in whatever form it takes. I guess what I am saying is that you really shouldn’t go into Skyscraper expecting Die Hard. You’re not going to get Die Hard.
This is a bit of a shame, since The Rock has enough charisma, uniqueness, nerve, and talent to take on just about any task imaginable (like a presidency), but isn’t really given much to do here but be the second largest thing in the movie besides the titular building. Granted, that’s really enough, but it’s hard not to wish for more. Skyscraper has such potential, fifty percent of which is squandered by its misunderstanding of how cinematic thrills should work (at least to my taste). There is an overflowing bag of tricks in the hands of the filmmakers, and it seems they opted to use just enough of them to get by. And it really is enough. Just enough. Die Hard celebrates its thirtieth anniversary this very weekend and we still talk about it. We still dissect it (it IS a Christmas movie, damnit). Skyscraper, as fun of a time at the movies as it was, will be forgotten in a few weeks. No matter, Mission: Impossible – Fallout will be here soon enough to show us how it’s done.
The Rock plays Will Sawyer, a man with an action-packed name and an action-packed history. Years after an explosive event ends his job as a hostage negotiator, we find him disgraced and disabled. He has long since retired from active duty. He now has a wife (Neve Campbell, still alive!), kids, and thanks to a favor from a friend, a n ew job as the head of security for The Pearl, a brand new skyscraper which is now the largest building in the world. The Pearl has something like a billion floors, the lower half of which are occupied by businesses. The upper section is slated to be residential properties, but cannot be opened without the approval of its potential insurers. Sawyer has traveled to Hong Kong to give his approval (and to obtain foreign funding for the film), and to take a tour of the magnificent tower, which is constructed entirely of intermittently convincing pixels. Naturally, things go wrong and a movie happens.
While Sawyer is checking out the “offsite facility” before giving his final approval, terrorists or something have taken over the building and set its midpoint on fire WITH SAWYER’S FAMILY INSIDE. Now, with all of China watching (for real, there’s an entire subplot involving citizens watching the action on giant curbside screens), Sawyer must break into the skyscraper and save his family from the attack, while also clearing his name because this was made to look like his fault or something. I don’t know. None of that matters. All that matters is that The Rock is about to fuck up a building while we watch. Cool, right?
Well, sort of.
Where Skyscraper succeeds most is in its earnestness. The Rock has taken the stereotypical action hero and added “family man” to his MO. This is refreshing since so many action heroes are tasked with saving the whole city – the country – the world – THE UNIVERSE! The Rock just wants to save his family. Furthermore, his family is given plenty to do as well. Rather than just sit around and wait to be rescued, his wife, son, and daughter are all given hero moments, each of which are handled with a level of love and care which would be off-brand for a lot of the movies this claims to be an homage to. Does it work? On a moment to moment basis, yes. In the whole of the movie, not so much. For a movie that doesn’t even reach the two hour mark, it still feels a bit long and overstuffed. As much as I enjoyed the attempt at bringing in family dynamics, they would be the first thing to go in making this a little more streamlined.
Another thing that Skyscraper gets right is its ability to create stomach churning tension out of a mixed bag of CGI. You really do have to meet the movie halfway in this regard, but if you do, a few of the “hanging over the edge” moments really do work. The building mostly looks great, as do the streets below. The fire always looks like garbage, but is barely there to do anything but add to the drab color palette anyway. What can I say? The Rock is very good at emoting while surrounded by a green screen. I said it in my Rampage review. He’s probably the best in the business at such a thing. Unfortunately, Tom Cruise did it better, and for real. You can’t unsee Ethan Hunt dangling off the side of the actual tallest building in the world, and it’s hard not to be reminded of it when watching The Rock pretend to do the exact same thing. Much in the same way, one can’t watch a Die Hard homage without being reminded of Die Hard. Granted, there’s probably not a harness in the world strong enough to lift The Rock off the ground, but it still doesn’t excuse the fact that this film feels like less of a homage than a reminder of so many better movies. But if you’re willing to do the work, it works well enough.
And if someone can tell me what the hell the deal is with the final gunfight, I will give you one of my onion rings, because that is a serious “hit the brakes, we’re out of gas” moment. It was not a great way to go out.
Our director, Rawson Marshall Thurber (Central Intelligence) brings some style to the proceedings, evidencing a hungry filmmaker looking to flex. This is solely his project – he wrote and directed – so it’s nice to see him honing his skills. When you dissolve the big, digital set-pieces from the film, you can see a lot of fluid cinematic language in the smaller moments. A few beats of gunplay really pop, while the hand to hand combat keeps true to the burly “battle of attrition” meatbag slugfests which defined the 80s actioner. Add to that the churning score from Steve Jablonsky, and a few of these moments do indeed begin to feel reminiscent of Die Hard. I think with time, Thurber and his muse (The Rock, duh) have to potential to make the next great action movie. But Skyscraper, as fun as it is, just ain’t it.
Skyscraper opens in Philly theaters today.
Author: Dan Scully
Dan Scully is a film buff and humorist living in a tiny apartment in Philadelphia. He hosts the podcast I Like to Movie Movie and is the proud father to twin cactuses named Riggs & Murtaugh. Also, he doesn’t really mind when Batman kills people. Follow him on Twitter and Letterboxd.