Has there even been anyone in the history of Hollywood who seemed more suited to being an action star than Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson?
He has the physical presence of Arnie, the easy, self-deprecating charm of Denzel, and the charisma of an experiment grown in a vat with the aim of creating a future President of the United States.1.
It’s a shame then that his cinematic output this year has largely been so meh – big, silly blockbusters built around his broad shoulders. Where Rampage at least had a touch of wildness to it, Skyscraper takes the plot of Die Hard, arguably the definitive action movie, and simply asks, “Well, what if it the events took place during the plot of The Towering Inferno?”
Well, *a* towering inferno. Well, a very big fire taking up multiple floors of a very big building in which there are maybe a dozen people still remaining; most of whom are bad guys.
Johnson plays Will Sawyer, a one-legged, former FBI hostage turned building security expert, who secures the gig of checking the safety protocols for the world’s tallest building. The Pearl is an (imaginary) twisting construction of glass and steel that rises to over a mile above Hong Kong. He gives it the all-clear – whatever the trailers might suggest – but fails to account for the interference of a gang of heavily armed mercenaries.
Within twelve hours of him getting the job, the building is on fire and he’s performing a leap of faith off a crane, a thousand feet in the air, without so much as a yell of “yippee-ki-yay.”2
Despite their relative size difference, the shadow of Nakatomi Plaza looms large over Skyscraper. Where would-be every-man John McClane maintained a perpetual façade of cockiness, even when hopping barefoot across broken glass, Will mostly just looks concerned, which is understandable given his wife Sarah (Neve Campbell) and kids (McKenna Roberts & Noah Cottrell) are somewhere in the conflagration. Luckily, as a combat surgeon – in fact they very one who amputated his leg – she’s as much hero material as him, though it’s mostly left to The Rock to do the leaping and the dangling.
Writer-director Rawson Marshall Thurber captures the dizzyingly vertiginousness every time Will is forced to go out on a limb – sometimes his own – but the sheer scale of the endeavour can’t compensate for the lack of unique personality. The film’s sheer scale can’t compensate for the leaner, more economic pleasures.
Roland Møller has a certain menacing charm, but he’s no Hans Gruber. Noah Taylor’s Mr. Pierce is sufficiently slimy yet, if given the choice, one would still rather cold-cock Richard Thornburg. The Rock adds value, of course, as a man whose broad shoulders would seem to preclude crawling through air vents – the anti-McClane in that regard; though they both have an appreciation for the versatility of duct tape.
The film’s script, also written by Thurber, encourages us to see Will as a vet suffering with PTSD and disability, but the character beats sort of get lost amid the body blows.3 This inferno may tower, but that’s about all it does.
Where Die Hard director John McTiernan had all of the real-life Fox Plaza to play around in, Thurber is constrained by the scale of his fictional setting. Films like Die Hard and The Towering Inferno thrive partly on claustrophobia, on the inescapability of the environment, which doesn’t apply when the action is playing out over, in theory, 200+ floors.
Unlike last year’s Jumanji, which took its time with and comedy from character work (see specifically: Jack Black as self-absorbed teenage girl), Skyscraper‘s blueprint is structured around getting The Rock to a high-tech equivalent of the Magic Mirror Maze climax from Lady from Shanghai – as opposed to “big bloke in even bigger building in Hong Kong”.
Despite a reported budget of $125 million, Skyscraper is a blip on the cinematic skyline. I even paid to see it in 4DX, all the to better smell what The Rock was cookin’, but all I got was a cold waft of disappointment.4
- Which is currently a pretty low bar, given the incumbent is basically a blathering Dalek.
- No “m*********ers, please. This is a 12A.
- More on that in the end note.
- Though that may have just been the fans. The characters are sweltering in an inferno while you’re enjoying a refreshing breeze. That, and the chair insisted on jabbing me in the ribs every time someone lands a punch; like you’re sharing a long car ride with an annoying sibling. It got so that I started dreading the fight scenes, which, given this is an action movie…Whatever the opposite of immersive is, 4DX is it.