Film & TV

Skyscraper’s Brainless Blockbuster Thrills

Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson in Skyscraper (Kimberley French/Universal Pictures)
Dwayne ‘The Rock’ Johnson’s latest action flick is fine, but it could have been so much more.

If you’re ever going to see Skyscraper, it’s advisable to see it on the big screen. Having your field of vision overloaded with danger helps to cover up the general ludicrousness of the adventure. It’s an adequate, common, or garden blockbuster, but it could have been so much more. It could have been a smashing piece of summer delirium. It could have been an Arnold Schwarzenegger movie.

Given just the slightest tweak, Skyscraper could have been the funniest movie of the summer in addition to being a breathtaking adventure: The mind returns wistfully to The Terminator, Commando, Terminator 2, Total Recall, and True Lies. All of them were exceptionally attuned to their comic possibilities. In Skyscraper, I kept waiting for Dwayne Johnson’s Will Sawyer to deliver the perfect raised-eyebrow assessment of the flameballs of absurdity exploding all around him. About the closest he comes is when, after he climbs 100 or so stories on a construction crane, smashes a hole in the side of a Hong Kong skyscraper three times the height of the Empire State Building, and dives into the building from the crane, his trapped wife (Neve Campbell) asks how he got there. “It’s a long story,” he responds — admirably modest and dryly understated, but not a perfect line. What’s frustrating about the general lack of wit is that this movie is written and directed by a comedy guy — Rawson Marshall Thurber, who gave us (all praise and glory unto him) Dodgeball. Why play it straight this time?

Like Schwarzenegger, Johnson is a man-Alp, a superhero whose body is his super-suit. But his nonchalance is of a different order than Schwarzenegger’s. Johnson is the “I got this” guy. He rolls with every punch. Nothing fazes him, not even leaping off a three-inch ledge through a scything wind turbine to a welcome-mat-sized platform a thousand feet off the ground. Schwarzenegger wouldn’t have been fazed either, but there would have been a wink in the whirlwind. There would have been a twinkle of irony, a conspiratorial nod to the audience that asks: Can you believe this movie we’ve gotten ourselves into?

Given just the slightest tweak, Skyscraper could have been the funniest movie of the summer in addition to being a breathtaking adventure.

Skyscraper, which remixes elements of The Towering Inferno, Die Hard, and True Lies, is just stolidly efficient by comparison. Johnson’s Sawyer is the security expert in charge of clearing the world’s tallest building for insurance purposes, but — this seems like a bad idea — the management gives him a tablet with the power to shut off all the building’s anti-fire systems. Bad guys (vague ones, working for generic “syndicates”) gang up on him, gain access to this tablet, and disable the fire-protection system as they spark up a blaze on the 96th floor. The only person above that is the billionaire owner (Chin Han) of the unfinished property. Except! Sawyer’s wife and adorable, panda-loving twin children are also up there, unexpectedly. This means Sawyer will have the opportunity to, for instance, hold up a steel-girder bridge hanging over an indoor garden while his wife is climbing out on a plank balanced over a pit of hellfire. Cool.

The Sawyer-family travails are accidental: What the villains want is for the building owner to hand over a flash drive that has all of their villainous banking information on it, and as this is one of the most boring MacGuffins ever, the script feels like a first draft. Equally rote are the villains themselves, who have no world-domination scheme, or even a jolly old anti-capitalist instinct. They’re just some hired guns out to make a buck. Incidentally, the scariest of them gets identified in an instant by police based on this description: about six feet tall, maybe Scandinavian, muscular. Aha! The computer rings him right up.

That isn’t even the dumbest thing that happens in the movie: Later the baddies tell Sawyer they want him to use his security expertise to breach the building’s locking systems, and threaten to kill his daughter if he refuses. He says he doesn’t know how to do it, so they forget about him and take his daughter away, muttering about throwing her off the roof. Neither side of this interaction makes any sense. (He’s going to let them leave with his daughter instead of following closely behind? Instead of killing him they’re going to leave him alone to figure out a plan to take them all down?) Equally brainless is the final plot gimmick — it’s not surprising or clever enough to be a twist — Thurber gives us in the closing minutes.

Still, no one is going into this film expecting to get in a lot of brain exercise, except in the more reptilian precincts of the gray stuff, and Skyscraper more or less keeps you on edge as Sawyer defies death in dozens of different vividly imagined scenarios. The scene in which Sawyer (despite missing half a leg) climbs the exterior of the crane is so nerve-jangling I could feel my palms sweating. If you don’t have a fear of heights going in, you may develop one during this movie.

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