The studio summer blockbuster, a reliable genre of more!, seems the perfect fit for the bulking, hulking anatomy of Dwayne Johnson. In everything he does, The Rock operates in Trumpian economies of size: the largest pecs, the highest reps, the most humility. His last studio film, Rampage, released only three months ago, saw him partner with a gargantuan gorilla to fight Boulevard-sized beasties. Johnson’s latest, Skyscraper, casts him as a security expert forced to save his family from not just a burning building, but a building that happens to be the tallest one in the world. Yuuge.
The architectural ambition of ‘the Pearl’ is not matched by the creative ambition behind the film, written and directed by Rawson Marshall Thumber, who directed Johnson in Central Intelligence, and has worked on comedies like Dodgeball and We’re The Millers. For his first action blockbuster, Thumber falls, quite quickly, into safe beats and unremarkable character work, all-important details lost in the Pearl’s shiny, unreal cavern. An inverted Goldilocks, Skyscraper is both too big and too small.
The film opens on a breathless promo video for Hong Kong’s super-tall structure, dwarfing The Empire State Building several times over. It’s the phallic chrome vision of billionaire Zhao Long Ji (Chin Han), part mall, part apartments for the super-rich, powered by giant whooshing turbines at its centre (you think our lead will have to jump across the blades at some point?). Zhao needs the insurance guys on board before opening the Pearl’s higher floors to tenants, and so invites Will Sawyer (Johnson) to inspect the gaffe and give it the thumbs-up. The only snag: bad guys with guns. A band of saboteurs set the Pearl alight, trapping above the fire line Sawyer’s wife Sarah (Neve Campbell), daughter and son, who has asthma but holds up remarkably fine in the chemically toxic air.
The comparison being made, alongside The Towering Inferno, is Die Hard. And it makes sense: a lone hero; a wife; a tower; a bad guy with an accent (Roland Møller as Kores Batha, extortionist for Hong Kong mafias). But the comparison doesn’t do Skyscraper any favours: the precise logistical escalation of the Bruce Willis classic is lost in fantastical spaces and ineffectual pacing. And the sarcastic, woundable, crabby personality of John McClane is too real and prickly for Johnson. Could you picture a Johnson lead sitting in a bar complaining about his shitty day? McClane gave every impression of being a bit of a crummy husband, but Sawyer is an impeccable family man and FBI/military vet, another of Johnson’s Good Guy Hero Dads.
The film tries for vulnerability, giving Sawyer a prosthetic leg below the knee, disabled from a hostage rescue mission gone wrong. But the pain is hard to buy, and it feels like another cliche in the pile: the best friend who betrays the lead; the Police Inspector (Byron Mann) who spills expositionary intel to the lead’s wife the moment she’s in custody; the dialogue call-backs; the badass female villain with the Dragon Tattoo fringe.
Johnson is never bad, and there are a couple of eye-raising stunts, but the script and direction don’t work hard enough to distinguish the film from any number of lone wolf action flicks. Skyscraper just doesn’t reach high enough. Conor Smyth
Skyscraper is on wide release.