A film review by Craig J. Koban July 29, 2018

SKYSCRAPER  jj

2018, PG-13, 109 mins.

 

Dwayne Johnson as Will Sawyer  /  Neve Campbell as Sarah Sawyer  /  Pablo Schreiber as Ben  /  Adrian Holmes as Ajani Okeke  /  Roland Møller as Kores Botha  /  Chin Han as Zhao Long Zhi  /  Hannah Quinlivan as Xia  /  Byron Mann as Inspector Wu

Written and directed by Rawson Thurber

SCREENED IN
3D

I think one of the essential problems with Dwayne Johnson's recent film career is that he's favoring an aggressive paycheck grabbing quantity of films to quality of films approach to selecting his projects.  

There's a reason The Rock is the highest paid actor working in contemporary movies: It has everything to do with the fact that he's taking just about any job given to him, and ones that don't really play up to all of his strengths as a charismatic performer.  Coming just a few short months after the supremely dopey action thriller RAMPAGE comes SKYSCRAPER, a film almost dopier, if that's even possible, and one that tries - albeit very unsuccessfully - to be an effective marriage of DIE HARD and THE TOWERING INFERNO.   Aside from a beyond obvious been-there, done-that vibe of overt familiarity, SKYSCRAPER rarely finds ways to subvert or even transcend the genre playbook.  This leaves the whole enterprise feeling more numbing and exhausting than truly pulse poundingly thrilling. 

Perhaps another distracting problem with this Rawson Marshall Thurber directed film - re-teaming with Johnson after CENTRAL INTELLIGENCE, which I modestly enjoyed - is that its main star is essentially playing yet another variation of the same character that he's been playing over and over again as of late: the indestructible superman/everyman with a heart of gold.  In SKYSCRAPER Johnson plays Will Sawyer, a former FBI agent that - in a fairly brutal opening sequence - fails to stop a mad bomber from blowing up himself and his family.  Being in close proximity to the blast leaves Sawyer with an amputated leg and ample mental scarring.  But, of course, because we know that main hero of this film is the bicep bulging Johnson you just known that conventional weapons - and even explosives at point blank range- have very little death dealing impact on him.

 

 

We then flash forward a decade and the now titanium legged Sawyer and his wife, Sarah (Neve Campbell, whose character is a doctor that tended after his wounds upon his initial visit to the ER) alongside his two kids have made a move to Hong Kong in hopes of him getting a highly prestigious job as the head of security at a brand new mega skyscraper that's not only larger than Dubai's Burj Khalifa, but looks like one of those impossibly large and futuristic buildings right out of a cityscape from STAR WARS.  The 200 story building - dubbed "The Pearl" - is essentially a self contained city stretching up to the heavens and is the brainchild billionaire industrialist Zhao Long Ji (Chin Han), decked out with every single conceivable high tech gadget known to man.  The nearly one mile tall structure requires someone with the right balance of know-how, ingenuity, and muscle to serve as its chief of security, and after wowing Ji it appears that Sawyer has landed his new and long sought after assignment. 

Of course, all is not well in this building, seeing as poor Sawyer has been set up by his "good pal" Ben (Pablo Schreiber), who initially got him his job interview in the first place, but later wishes to use his new access to the building and give it to a series of terrorists that wish to take it over and burn it down to the ground, making Sawyer seem falsely complicit in the crime.  The terrorist squad does indeed infiltrate the 4000-foot tall Pearl and begins to disarm its security and anti-fire measures.  When these villains begin a fire on the 96th floor it becomes a deeply personal matter for Sawyer, seeing as his family - in an achingly predictable fashion - becomes trapped on the floor right above it (and worse yet, his one young son has...asthma!).  Needless to say, Sawyer becomes obsessed with finding a way through the local police that are wanting to arrest him and back onto the skyscraper so that he can secure his family's safety, defeat the terrorist scum, clear his name, and secure his job.  

Doing this all with only one good leg remains a constant challenge. 

Okay, one thing needs to be discussed before anything else:  There is absolutely zero need to make The Rock's character one with a prosthetic leg, seeing as it rarely, if ever, serves a purpose of making his character any more authentically susceptible to the attacks of the protagonists and the raging fires that are erupting around him.  Because Sawyer is played by Johnson there's rarely, if any, tension or suspense in the story, seeing as the Hulk-sized actor towers over every single other assailant he encounters throughout, meaning that any fear that he won't make it out of any situation alive is null and void.  Now, there's an argument to be made that SKYSCRAPER exists as a showcase reel for Johnson's assets as an action hero, but the issue here is that Sawyer doesn't have the seemingly ordinary appeal of, say, Bruce Willis' everyman cop hero from DIE HARD (sorry, but comparisons between this film and that 1988 classic are unavoidable).  John McClane was tough as nails, to be sure, but he was also highly vulnerable.  You genuinely worried about his fate.  There was no moment in SKYSCRAPER during which time I had any concern for Sawyer's welfare.  For the most part, he's an impervious muscle bound specimen that - bad leg and all - cannot be hurt or killed.  This is a rare case where The Rock's casting in a role is counter productive and actually subverts the film's tension; he's simply not very believable in the part. 

Two other issues stick out like sore thumbs here: (1) SKYSCRAPER's over reliance on artificial looking CGI artifice over old school production values and (2) the villains on display here are monumentally weak.  The Pearl ultimately doesn't ever feel like a real building, and having Johnson spend a lion's share of his time playing scenes over a green screen doesn't help with this action film's visceral impact.  And when one considers that these type of action films are only as great as their villains (remember how memorably cold and calculating Hans Gruber was in DIE HARD?), the foes Johnson squares off against are of the cookie cutter variety and don't come off as any level of tangible threat.  There's also the notion that their plan overall doesn't really make a hill of bean's worth of sense under minor scrutiny, and it only makes sense because the insipid scripting tells us it makes sense.  Even the action segments and set pieces - that should have been the bread and butter of this film - lack confidence and clarity in execution.  Sans a very well orchestrated apartment fight scene early on (with both opponents arming themselves with whatever they can find), SKYSCRAPER never achieves a level of intense bone crunching mayhem that I was yearning for.  Its neutered and bloodless PG-13 rating doesn't help much either. 

Actually, a lot of the action featured throughout inspires unintentional laughter.  Sawyer's re-entry into The Pearl via a construction crane, a broken window and a leap of faith all but throws logic out the window.  There's even a more howl inducing moment when Sawyer uses duct tape as an adhesive to make him climb outside the skyscraper like Spider-man, leaving me doubting the very holding power of said sticky material.  At one point he ever uses his Herculean strength to hold up a collapsing steel bridge from sending his wife plunging hundreds of stories down to her death, an eye rolling moment that comes off as pure science fiction.  And, gee whiz, the plotting around the action features some ultra convenient coincidences and further leaps in logic, like, for example, why the makers of the building pointlessly decided to put an all important control panel that the hero needs access to...inside a giant circulating fan that could decapitate anyone trying to get to it, or a completely unnecessary space at the top of the building that utilizes a series of unfathomably complex mirrors for no other reason than to provide a nifty backdrop for a climatic showdown between all parties. 

Then there's Neve Campbell's character.  She's established early on as a field trained military combat medic and surgeon, a position that most certainly requires a person of high intelligence.  Early in the film, though, she's incapable of knowing how to reset and reboot her iPhone without her husband's help, but later in the narrative she's able to commandeer The Pearl's security tablet, navigate through it like and pro and even re-program and re-activate the building's security measures by - wait for it - rebooting it...just like her hubby taught her to do with her phone.  Oy vey.  SKYSCRAPER is not embarrassingly awful, and at times it's even passably watchable.  However, the whole film feels like it was made up of spare parts that were used infinitely better in past films from years ago, and throughout it all you gain a nagging sensation that you've seen all of this done far better before.  I guess there's nothing inherently wrong with trying to rip off the DIE HARD-ian template for success, but you have to at least bring something new to the table while mining past and iconic films for inspiration.  The generically underwhelming SKYSCRAPER is a sloppy seconds sort of action film, done with very little creativity or intelligence.  It also teaches the disabled new ways to get out of any situation with a metal leg...but only if one has the titanic strength of a former pro-wrestler.  

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