Movie Review: “Skyscraper”

There are few actors out there today whose personalities are as magnetic as that of Dwayne Johnson.  Forget the muscles, the man can just about carry a film based upon the wattage of his smile.  Give Johnson a good script and surround him with a good supporting cast and you have yourself a high-octane winner.  Johnson’s latest effort, “Skyscraper,” gives him some help in the latter department and absolutely none in the former making it a mild disappointment more than anything else.

Written and directed by Rawson Marshall Thurber, “Skyscraper” is just about as bland as an action movie can be.  The tale takes place in Hong Kong as one man, Zhao Long Ji (Chin Han) is finally set to open the upper, residential, half of the world’s tallest building, The Pearl. The lower half has been open for a while, but without a safety assessment, they haven’t been able to insure it and therefore start having people live there.  To make this assessment they have hired former military/FBI man Will Sawyer (Johnson).

In a hostage situation gone bad years earlier, Will lost his leg and his desire to fight.  Moving on, he opened a one man shop in his garage to conduct safety assessments.

Why would he, a small business owner, possibly be chosen for this assignment?  Ah, that’s because a former co-worker, Ben (Pablo Schreiber), got him the job and Ben had some very specific, and nefarious, reasons for choosing him.  Ben, naturally, doesn’t want bad things to happen to Will, but the best laid plans sometimes don’t work out and Will is soon forced to try and save his wife, Sarah (Neve Campbell) and their two kids, Georgia (McKenna Roberts) and Henry (Noah Cottrell), when they get caught in a fire in The Pearl.  Not only that, but a group of bad guys have set the fire in order to smoke out Zhao Long Ji.

Immediately two great movies should spring to mind here – “Die Hard” and “The Towering Inferno.”  Thurber’s film has definite homages to both of those works, but it is never remotely as good.  The fire is regularly a secondary concern in “Skyscraper,” and the size of The Pearl is almost wholly irrelevant.  It is a big building, yes, but the entire film could play out in nearly the exact same fashion in a building a third or maybe a quarter that size.   It wouldn’t be called “Skyscraper” then, but that’s probably the biggest change that would have to occur.

Johnson is definitely solid in the lead role, and he helps power the audience through the entirety of the action.  Wonderfully, Campbell’s Sarah gets a solid part as well.  She is no damsel in distress, but rather takes an active role in helping rescue their kids and in saving Will himself.

The bad guys, including Roland Møller’s Kores Botha are less compelling.  They are all purely obvious, wholly generic bad guys.  They are as bland and boring as the depiction of the fire itself.  Neither of these impediments are given enough time to make the audience all that interested.

The problem is not just a mediocre script and generic baddies, Thurber’s movie is full of quick cuts, a shaky camera, way too many close-ups as well, all of which only exacerbates the weaknesses of “Skyscraper.”  The effect of the shooting style is that the audience is able to see the fear or the anger or any other emotion on a character’s face with ease, but the reason’s for the emotions are less clear, as are the actions they take to get out of bad situations.

Although this happens regularly, it is best exemplified by a sequence in the film where a bridge has partially collapsed and is in danger of sustaining further damage.  Will announces the problem and grabs two cables, ostensibly holding up the bridge as Sarah effects a rescue.  The audience watches the pain on Will’s face as he struggles with the weight of what he is doing.  Rather than being amazed at the Rock’s fortitude, this big moment in the movie results in laughter from pockets of a full theater – there is no way the Rock is holding up a bridge by grabbing two cables and the film doesn’t sell the notion at all.  Further reflection indicates that, perhaps, Will isn’t really meant to be holding up the entire bridge, but rather just the last little bit of it which is in danger of falling.  One can’t be certain of this, but that feat certainly feels more realistic, equally important in terms of the rescue, and may elicit fewer guffaws.  If the movie only allowed us to see what was actually taking place or bothered to explain it.

Some of the best shots in the movie, some of the ones that most allow the audience to understand what is taking place are ones which are meant to mimic live news coverage.  A massive television screen is setup outside The Pearl and the police and bystanders are able to watch what is taking place hundreds of feet up outside the building via this screen.  Those bystanders become the audience’s proxy, telling those in the theater when to laugh, when to gasp, when to be amazed. Without them, the audience might be lost during certain moments.

The final battle in the film is a solid update to James Bond’s fight with Scaramanga at the end of “The Man with the Golden Gun.”  Although the battle’s conclusion is telegraphed, it still manages to be more engaging than the rest of the action.

“Skyscraper” is an absolutely disposable bit of summer entertainment.  It skims along just barely providing the absolute minimum level of excitement.  While movies like “The Towering Inferno” and “Die Hard” are well remembered for their thrills, twists, and performances, it is highly unlikely that this movie will join the pantheon.

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photo credit: Universal Pictures

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