The Rock continues to reign as our biggest movie star
More wholesome than Die Hard, more bombastic than The Towering Inferno, less tight than The Raid; Rawson Marshall Thurber’s Skyscraper is the biggest and loudest addition to the “action/disaster in a building” subgenre, and goes toe-to-toe with all of them.
Thurber has been known up to this point primarily as a writer/director in the comedy realm, having written and directed Ben Stiller’s Dodgeball and Central Intelligence with Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson and Kevin Hart. He makes a surprisingly clean break into blockbuster action here with Skyscraper. Making friends, and becoming creative partners, with Dwayne Johnson is very good business. Johnson is famously concerned about work ethic, so Thurber must have passed Johnson’s tests, as Skyscraper is now the second collaboration between the creator and star. And they’ve created something in Skyscraper that feels like a bullseye: a crowd-pleaser that delivers what its marketing promised.
Skyscraper is first and foremost a good time at the movies. It’s a summer blockbuster designed to entertain you, distract you, thrill you, and then leave you alone afterwards, not requiring much reflection or digestion at all. That it succeeds at being a wildly enjoyable thrill ride makes it a success in my book. That it happens to be an “original” property and a wholly star-driven production that’s neither a sequel or a reboot or a lega-sequel or a building block for a cinematic universe actually feels completely refreshing. Skyscraper works because The Rock is a bonafide movie star, and even though the budget and tech are amped up to 11, the thrills come primarily from watching a movie star that we love dangle off the side of the world’s tallest building, seeing his on-screen family in danger, and knowing that in the end he’s going to save the day. It’s almost regressive in how old school it is, but somehow in today’s cynical blockbuster environment, that feels enlivening.
The other secret weapon to Skyscraper besides Johnson himself is Thurber’s script, believe it or not. Skyscraper is nothing if not formulaic, but Thurber delivers a screenplay that’s archetypal and sets up and pays off many beats and gags and set pieces. Thurber is working overtime to entertain, and it ends up feeling almost effortless as a result. To be clear, these set ups and payoffs don’t necessarily feel smart or inventive so much as they feel familiar and engaging. As a for instance, the record-breaking (and titular) skyscraper is built in Hong Kong and is known as The Pearl due to the giant pearl-structure at the top. When mega-rich builder Zhao Long Ji (Chin Han, The Dark Knight) shows Johnson’s Will Sawyer what’s inside the Pearl, it turns out to be a maze of mirrors with cameras on the inside and out, making it the ultimate planetarium, etc. It feels highly impractical, but you just know it’s going to result in a big action set piece at the end. There’s dozens of these. Johnson’s young son Henry (Noah Cottrell) has asthma, his wife Sarah (Neve Campbell) is having IT issues with her phone, and Will himself has a prosthetic leg as a result of an FBI raid he conducted in the past which went sideways. Then there’s the building. Every little piece about the building, from its fire safety system, to its ridiculous turbines, to the indoor park, and on up to the pearl at the top… all of it will become Thurber and Johnson’s playground for action set pieces. Every last detail and complication added to the story is going to pay off, and while that’s not rocket science, it sure goes a long way towards a final product feeling under control and intentionally designed as a rollercoaster ride.
The characters also click. This is highly on brand for The Rock as a real “family values” kind of presence in Hollywood. Sawyer is a hard working man who had a tragedy which forever changed his life, but which led him to his combat-surgeon wife Sarah, with whom he has two kids. Skyscraper is all about the “how far will you go to protect your family” idea, and it largely works because that’s really what The Rock is all about. Then there’s all the villains. Much of the fun of the original Die Hard was the twists and turns about who the terrorists are and what they want. There’s some of that here as well, but in Skyscraper you’re also kept guessing as to which seemingly “good” guys actually in on the plot to set The Pearl on fire and steal something very valuable. (If you’re a major movie fan, you know which people are going to turn, though). Lead terrorist Kores Botha is played by up and coming tough guy actor Roland Moller, who really makes the most out of a stock character. (Moller starred in a little SXSW thriller called A Bluebird In My Heart that I recommend). Orange Is The New Black and The Wire’s Pablo Schrieber continues to beef up and take on more action roles, here playing Sawyer’s friend who experienced the FBI tragedy alongside him and helped get him this new gig as the security analyst for The Pearl. Schrieber has gone beefcake for both Den Of Thieves and now this film, and I’m here for it. CEO Zhao even ends up becoming a rather twisty character, which, along with the Hong Kong setting of the film, may be a requirement for the Chinese-owned Legendary Pictures model, but which all works pretty flawlessly here. Perhaps most surprising is Neve Campbell’s Sarah. Herself an accomplished soldier, Sarah gets multiple action hero moments and sells them quite nicely. It’s great to see Neve Campbell both mothering and kicking ass on the big screen again, and it’s yet another credit to Thurber’s script that Sarah has a lot more to do than just be a damsel in distress.
Skyscraper isn’t perfect. It really is a recycled riff on Die Hard and Towering Inferno. But you already knew that from the trailers. So if you can get past that, you can have a great time here. The action direction is occasionally very choppy and sloppy, making some fights incomprehensible. There are holes and logic leaps and over-complications aplenty in the script I’ve spent so much time praising thus far. But today’s blockbuster environment sort of requires ridiculously high stakes (not to mention high towers). The film’s over-the-top premise and set pieces can be forgiven in part because… at least there’s not a bunch of CGI robots running around? I’m inclined to forgive some of the film’s more eye-rolling elements just because of the old school roots of one man against impossible odds. Your mileage may vary on this. It’s also all entirely forgettable, designed as an experience of big screen spectacle that, once it ends and relaxes its tight grip on your nerves, will fade into memory quickly. We’re all accustomed to popcorn cinema at this point, though, and this is as fine a specimen of popcorn cinema as you’re going to get in the summer of 2018!
And I’m Out.