Every summer it seems there are endless popcorn films that don’t make you think- aside from how preposterous that whole thing you just saw was. It’s heavy emphasis on action, no emphasis on logic. Usually one of them can be described best as the Big Dumb Summer Movie, and usually it's one of Michael Bay's Transformers abominations. This year the title falls to Skyscraper, which could have easily been titled Die Hard In The Towering Inferno, or The Physically Impossible Crane Jump Shot. A derivative action thriller that pretty much messes around with both terrorist and disaster film franchises and doesn’t do so nearly as well, it gives Dwayne Johnson a chance to growl at everything (again) and throws concepts like sense, physics, and gravity right out the window. Of a very high building.
A prelude establishes Will Sawyer (Johnson), an FBI hostage rescue team leader, and a botched crisis results in his retirement, what with losing the better part of a leg and all, when it doesn’t go according to plan. Years later he’s married to Sarah (Neve Campbell), they’ve got a couple of too-cute kids, and his line of work is assessing security concerns for skyscrapers. He and his family are residing at the Pearl, a two hundred plus story beast of an ultramodern tower in Hong Kong, as he consults on the building design for his employers, and of course this being an action film, and since it’s ripping off Die Hard, it doesn’t take long for terrorists to show up and turn things into, well, a towering inferno.
Rawson Marshall Thurber wrote and directed this. He’s done comedy work before, most recently the film Central Intelligence, also with Johnson. This is the first time he’s done an action thriller. The script borrows liberally from more than one genre. The Die Hard theme of terrorists taking control of a confined space certainly applies. But so too are things like employers not taking legitimate concerns seriously, authorities jumping to conclusions, and ultimately life and death peril. And where Die Hard succeeds is in that we feel John McClane is believable and mortal; Sawyer, on the other hand, gets written in such a way that doesn’t feel believable, that’s over the top. This is Thurber desperately trying to hide the fact that his story is derivative behind a whole lot of overblown and over the top plot devices.
Disaster films are mined for their effect- a fire high in a very high building was already done to good effect with The Towering Inferno back in the day. The script plays to some of the same stereotypes typical of that genre, all while ignoring basic rules of physics. I mean seriously… there’s what we can best describe as the money shot of the whole film, and in short it is not possible. It’s a matter of defying things like gravity and physics and trajectory and fundamental reality. Not that it stops your average action thriller from ignoring such realities- insanely impossible stunts have kept Tom Cruise pretending he’s still twenty five years younger than he is in the latter half of the Mission Impossible series, after all.
Thurber as a director is more competent in that role. He can reasonably handle action, even if it feels over the top and violating the rules of gravity. A lot of the production values are CGI and FX- you’re not literally going to suspend an actor that high above anything, but things look realistic enough. It does have a vertigo inducing effect at times, which is appropriate given how tall this building is supposed to be. Thurber’s style handles the conventions of the genre decently enough- moments of sheer terror in between creeping down dark corridors and enclosed spaces, the desperate fights for survival, and so on, but it doesn’t change the fact that the film still feels derivative.
This is one of those cases where the cast is, for the most part, better than the writing gives them. Chin Han, who I’ve only seen in a supporting role in The Dark Knight, has a supporting role as Zhao Long Ji, the developer who’s hired Sawyer. He’s blasé about the concerns brought up, and hiding a secret or two himself. It’s reluctantly that he’s drawn into the action, but the actor gives the role a certain stoicism that at least works. Pablo Schreiber turns up as Ben, Will’s slighty shifty buddy. And British-Aussie actor Noah Taylor ramps up the sleazeball angle as an underwriter, Pierce, whose presence in the film just feels creepy.
Of course in a film like this, you need an antagonist, otherwise it’s just Building On Fire, News At Eleven, Now Back To Men’s Curling In Progress. Which would make for a boring movie. The problem here is in the writing, because the villain, Kores Botha, is no Hans Gruber. Played by Danish actor Roland Moller, the character chews the scenery, menaces the innocent, and wrecks havoc. He’s the required Euro-trash thug with an agenda. The actor’s probably better than the material gives him to work with, but the material at hand just makes him the villain-du-jour and doesn’t give us a reason to find him compelling.
Neve Campbell, best known for Party Of Five and the Scream franchise, gets to play the requisite damsel sort of kind of in distress as Will’s life Sarah. Filling in the part of Bonnie Bedelia’s Holly (minus the marital estrangement) from the first Die Hard, Sarah finds herself and her children in peril throughout the film, either from gun toting Eurotrash or a burning building, and while part of that means she’s in peril, she’s capable of fending for herself too. Campbell makes the most of the role as a mother protecting her kids in the midst of peril (the Die Hard franchise waited to put the kids into peril until they were grown up), and at least the dynamic between she and Johnson feels believable.
Johnson as an actor has the gift of a good sense of comedic timing, a gruff, grouchy demeanour, and stage presence. He’s interesting to watch, though here the role is over the top. In the last few years his films have included playing a Greek demigod in Hercules, putting up with Zac Efron (for which he should have been paid double just for the irritation) in Baywatch, wasting time in some of those Fast And Furious films, tangling with mutated beasts in Rampage, and surviving the ultimate earthquake in San Andreas. Now we find him pitted against the world’s tallest imaginary building. While the character is rendered mortal- losing a leg will do that- it still doesn’t feel as human as, well, John McClane always felt. That’s more to the fault of the writer than the actor. Johnson makes do with what he’s given, wavering between seriousness and the occasional quip.
So Skyscraper pretty much takes the cake as the Big Dumb Summer Movie of 2018. It’s entertaining enough in its own way, but it’s derivative and over the top, and does things over the course of storytelling that defy logic. There are plotholes big enough to fit a skyscraper in, and it just leaves you with two general impressions- first, that the director needs to work from the scripts of others and the studio needs to keep a close rein on him, and second… just how ridiculous was that whole thing?