Audiences know what Dwayne Johnson is cooking. He’s a megastar that has erected flaccid franchises better than those little blue pills. There’s no denying his passion and the effort he puts into the projects he chooses. When Arnold Schwarzenegger told him to “have fun” as the two crossed paths in Peter Berg’s The Rundown (2003), Johnson happily complied. But we may be reaching a point where it might be best if he took his foot off the accelerator and slowed down. Skyscraper is his third release in seven months, following Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle and Rampage. By this point whatever Johnson has cooked feels like microwaved leftovers.
Two years after they made Central Intelligence together, Johnson and writer/director Rawson Marshall Thurber are back with a summer blockbuster that is not based on a TV show, or a video game, or is a resurrected franchise, or has a single superhero. By all intents, Skyscraper is an original movie. Thurber just happens to blatantly borrow from Irwin Allen’s fiery disaster The Towering Inferno and Die Hard (which turns the big 3-0 same weekend Johnson attempted to do his best to protect his trademark raised eyebrow from being singed.)
The director and star don’t hide the fact that Die Hard was a heavy influence in development, just like John McTiernan’s action classic borrowed from The Towering Inferno. (Die Hard is based on the Roderick Thorp novel Nothing Lasts Forever, which he crafted after watching Steve McQueen and Paul Newman battle blazes – and screen time – in the 1975 disaster flick.) But whereas Bruce Willis’s John McClane provided levity and lenience – even when killing terrorists with feet smaller than his sister – Dwayne Johnson is straight-laced as Will Sawyer, a war veteran and former leader of an FBI Hostage Rescue Team, now a security assessor for skyscrapers. On assignment in Hong Kong, Sawyer is assessing The Pearl, a 232-story monolith that makes Dubai’s Burj Khalifa look small. Things take a bad turn when some terrorists lay siege, disabling all the security fail safes and start a fire. With Sawyer’s family trapped in the building it’s up to him to save the day.
Okay, Skyscraper is a big, dumb movie. But just because a movie is dumb does that automatically mean it should be put in a trash bin and set on fire? The movie is already ablaze with a hero that has a history of smoldering in front of the camera. Callbacks and trademarks of the two movies mentioned already are found throughout; Skyscraper is also the oddest family movie to set up shop in the middle of summer’s blockbuster season. John Krasinski made you believe silence was golden in keeping the family safe in the hit A Quiet Place. Rawson Marshall Thurber forgoes silence in favor of automatic gunfire, shattered glass and a raging inferno.
I consider Die Hard to be the best action movie ever made and have enjoyed how it has influenced other action flicks with its log line comparisons. Our everyman hero flying cross country to visit his kids and estranged wife on Christmas Eve, only to find himself in a hostile situation as a German terrorist and his cohorts (including someone who looks like he could have been runner up in a Huey Lewis look-a-like contest) take over the building where his wife works. Die Hard‘s greatness is in its simplicity. Instead of one man trying to save the world, he just wants to get to his wife and see his kids. Maybe leave some milk and cookies for Santa. I get Thurber and Johnson’s push for wanting to recognize the family dynamic when it comes to escapist fare. Skyscraper, however, is still “Die Hard in a building…that happens to be on fire.”
Skyscraper is a throwback. Dwayne Johnson dismantles bad guys with a cocksure attitude and no disadvantages (even with one leg, in case you didn’t know) as he climbs, jumps, and swings to save his family (including wife Neve Campbell, who is no damsel in distress). Those looking for logic in a survival adventure that continuously disproves the laws of physics keep looking. You won’t find it here. The movie also plays everything straight with little humor. Muzzling Johnson’s charisma is like telling Tom Cruise he won’t be allowed to run in a movie. It just doesn’t feel right.
Skyscraper and its star may be at a size advantage in dwarfing others in terms of escapism, but Thurber fails at building tension, or characters, or much of anything. The action sequences are the connective tissue to a story about a menacing terrorist looking for a Faberge egg for interested parties (that’s what the McGuffin looks like). An infinity stone, it is not.
It isn’t without standout moments thanks in large part to Robert Elswit (Paul Thomas Anderson’s favored cinematographer and the one who photographed Tom Cruise on the Burj Khalifa for Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol). He takes us into the fiery madness with Will climbing to the top of a 100-story crane to then leap across and crash through one of The Pearl’s broken windows (take that McClane and your fire hose!). Will uses antique statutes the way McClane uses a sub-automatic machine gun for leverage. And when in doubt: duct tape. Lots of duct tape.
Skyscraper is Dwayne Johnson’s homage to Die Hard. Pure and simple. But his alpha male dominance can’t make up for a poor story and cardboard characters (aside from Neve Campbell, whose Sarah is a capable bad-ass in her own right. Her Mama Bear as hero would have been a far more interesting story.).
Older audiences looking for old-school action may find Skyscraper an enjoyable ride. I think I’ll stick with Die Hard and learning the ingredients that go into creating Twinkies.
Writer/Director: Rawson Marshall Thurber Cast: Dwayne Johnson, Neve Campbell, Pablo Schreiber, Noah Taylor, McKenna Roberts, Roland Moller, Matt O’Leary Rating: PG-13 (for sequences of gun violence and action, and for brief strong language) Running Time: 102 minutes
Travis Leamons is one of the Inside Pulse Originals and currently holds the position of Managing Editor at Inside Pulse Movies. He's told that the position is his until he's dead or if "The Boss" can find somebody better. I expect the best and I give the best. Here's the beer. Here's the entertainment. Now have fun. That's an order!