By: Hawk Ripjaw (Three Beers) –
Skyscraper is almost literally Die Hard combined with The Towering Inferno starring The Rock, and that is both as great and as derivative as you might expect it to be.
Dwayne Johnson stars as Will Sawyer, a former FBI agent traumatized by a failed hostage rescue attempt that also took one of his legs. But even traumatic events can have their positive outcomes–I mean, not for the family that got blown up, but for The Rock at least!–and Will’s nurse at the hospital, Sarah (Neve Campbell) eventually marries him and helps him start a family. Now, Will is a security contractor who’s been hired to inspect a new skyscraper called The Pearl.
The Pearl is the tallest building in the world and the pride and joy of ultra-gazillionaire Zhao Long Ji (Chin Han). At 220 stories with a shopping center on the first several floors and high-tech residencies on the ones above, it’s a state-of-the-art creation and Will has been recruited to give his blessing for the building to be cleared for insurance. One of the skyscraper’s flagship features is a fire containment system, which locks down a floor and contains a fire until the automatic sprinkler system puts it out. But in movies like these, such systems only exist to highlight the hubris of their creators before they’re exploited by villains. As it happens, there are some in terrorist-or-something-like-that Kores Botha (Roland Moller), his distractingly Ruby Rose-looking assassin Xia (Hannah Quinlivan), and group of other bad guys with several rotating combinations of facial hair and Eastern European accents. They all, however, possess the same hilariously callous disregard for collateral damage, resulting in one of the highest body counts for a PG-13 movie in recent memory.
The villains set a floor ablaze, disable the security system, and frame Will for the attack, putting the entire city’s police on his tail. Will’s wife and kids are trapped several floors above. The fire begins to rise, pushing them closer to the dead end at the top of the tower. The stakes are high, but Will has Family (TM), and nothing will stop him.
Movies that are as silly as Skyscraper have the difficult balance of making the movie compelling without taking itself too seriously to have fun. Lean too heavily into the silliness, and the movie doesn’t have as much dramatic weight. Skyscraper mostly achieves the balance. It acts like it takes itself very seriously, but is creatively over-the-top enough to illustrate that it knows exactly what sort of movie it is (“This is stupid,” Will mutters before clambering out to the exterior of the skyscraper). It’s also surprisingly exciting and the action has a good amount of variety. This also might be one of Johnson’s least interesting performances, but when his daughter is threatened with death, the glare he fires at Botha carves straight through the screen. I now know to never threaten Dwayne Johnson’s family.
Miraculously, Thurber somehow managed to recruit the remarkably talented cinematographer Robert Elswit (There Will Be Blood, Nightcrawler, Punch-Drunk Love, and many more including most of P.T. Anderson’s films) to be DP on Skyscraper, and it shows with some surprisingly dynamic shots during the almost non-stop action. It’s framed and shot well enough to often trick the mind into forgetting its wires and green screens. While we never actually fear for the lives of Will or his family, there are a good handful of “holy shit” moments as we get perspective shots of Will dangling hundreds of feet above the ground or his family traversing an unsteady bridge over a raging inferno.
The production design is equally stylish, with apparent free rein given to the set design and the ideas behind some of the sillier technology in the Pearl Tower. The skyscraper is wildly imaginative in its design, if practically really stupid: it’s got massive wind turbines towards the top, and adjacent to the top floor is a giant virtual reality sphere that literally exists only to set up a visually interesting climax.
A nice touch is Campbell’s performance as Sarah. Sarah isn’t the damsel in distress in need of saving alongside her kids—on the contrary, as a combat medic she springs into action the moment danger arises, kicking her own fair share of ass, and, conveniently, using her knowledge of Cantonese to communicate with the officers after Will.
Skyscraper is both the good kind of dumb, and the bad kind of dumb, and it is a lot of both of those. On the good side, you have a photograph showing that Zhao used a katana at the ribbon cutting for the building (below the picture hangs the katana, setting up one of the best cases of Chekov’s gun in recent memory). Will also has many, many instances of utilizing duct tape for nearly every imaginable need, including replicating the biggest setpiece in Mission: Impossible: Ghost Protocol.
Dwayne Johnson’s spectacularly large musclebound frame is once again given every opportunity to flex, strain, and sweat, including one scene where he literally holds a fucking bridge together so his wife and child can cross. It’s awesome. It aspires to the glory of “Daddy’s gotta go to work” from Furious 7, but the possibilities of Johnson every actually surpassing that moment are cosmic.
On the bad side, the narrative decision to have Will pursued by the police isn’t a bad one in theory, but when seeing Will charge back into the burning building to save his family isn’t enough to convince them that he’s innocent, it strains credulity. The fact that a specific plot point can “strain credulity” in a movie that features a man with a prosthetic leg leaping from a crane into a building is troubling, to say the least.
Given writer/director Rawson Marshall Thurber’s background in comedy, the script was the last thing that should have suffered here, but unfortunately it’s by far the movie’s worst element. The dialogue is ridiculously generic, there’s way too much exposition, and Will often speaks out loud as if he’s voicing the main character in a video game that voices a hint after the player has stood around too long. Literally, he will say things such as “now, I’ve just got to cut the wire and the doors will be disabled.” It’s immensely distracting and feels like the script was in need of some extra polish. The rest of the movie is as derivative as its concept: the “twist” villains are about as well-disguised as a gigantic neon sign, and the resolution, telegraphed in the first act, is one of the most savagely ill-conceived of the year.
Skyscraper doesn’t do much, if at all, to put a fresh spin on the action genre, but it’s made with love and is surprisingly fun and exciting. In terms of tone and style, it’s almost exactly like the first two acts of Dwayne Johnson’s earlier 2018 flick Rampage, for which I felt similarly as a disposable but knowingly stupid action flick. I’d rank Skyscraper a bit higher because of its tighter focus, but it’s in the same vein of preposterous mayhem. Here’s it’s all just a bit more serious.
Still, it’s disappointing that all that great action, flair, and self-awareness doesn’t have much to wrap itself around. The movie is often very fun, but every time the focus falls back to the story it’s just not nearly as interesting. Rawson Marshall Thurber continues to illustrate a surprisingly deft handle on the ingredients of genre films and how to both poke fun at them and creatively wring fresh material from them in each of his movies. Now he just needs a better script to play with.
Skyscraper (2018) Movie Drinking Game
Take a Drink: every time Will’s leg almost or does come off, or is used for something
Take a Drink: whenever Will almost falls (they can 3D print a liver now, right?)
Do a Shot: for every reminder of the enduring power and reliability of Duct Tape