Dwayne Johnson appears to be a pretty busy guy. In addition to the HBO series Ballers about to enter its fourth season, Johnson puts out a couple or more films a year. We’re not talking about small independent films, but rather huge high-budget and big f/x films. Next year will see Jungle Cruise and Jumanji 2, following with San Andreas 2, Suicide Squad 2, Black Adam and a remake of Big Trouble In Little China, all arriving in the next couple of years. This year saw Rampage, which comes to home video next week. It’s a busy life for Dwayne Johnson, who appears to have dropped “The Rock” from his name. I sure hope it didn’t hit anyone on the head. Now he’s starring in Skyscraper, which shamelessly combines elements of Die Hard and The Towering Inferno. In Skyscraper, Johnson shows us that he’s intent on hanging around for a while… this time from 220 stories high.
This time around Johnson plays Will Sawyer, who used to be a SWAT team member until his last mission turned on a bad call and left him badly burned and with a missing leg. 10 years later he’s recovered from the burns and is married with two kids to the nurse who took care of him back when he was injured, played by Neve Campbell. He runs his own security company and is about to get the biggest break of his second life. Another injured member of his old team, Ben (Schreiber) works for a wealthy Hong Kong building designer and gets Will the coveted job of certifying the building’s security and safety protocols for the insurance underwriters. He’s just about to finish the job when he discovers there might be some grudges from his bad call, and there are absolutely some grudges against billionaire builder Zhaoa Long Ji (Han), and some nasty players have used him to disable the fire supressant system and set fire to the 96th floor. It’s not just his honor at stake now. He’s been framed as the culprit, and his family is still in the building.
The plot is certainly pretty simple and doesn’t require too much of a struggle to figure out. It’s all just a setup for Johnson to go on a one-man crusade to break back into the burning building and try to save his family. What follows is some of the most unlikely series of daring stunts and near-misses intended to keep us on the edge of our seats. Mission accomplished. If what you’re looking for here is an amusement park ride that spends nearly two hours swinging you around from one precipice to another, strap yourself in, because that’s exactly what you’re going to get here.
The center piece of the film is this new tallest building on the planet called The Pearl. It’s three times higher than the Empire State Building and features a large ball cradled at the building’s top, which is where it earns its name. I have to admit that these guys didn’t pull any stops with the building, and it’s the prominent setting throughout. The ball itself is a high-definition room filled with state-of-the art monitors that allow you to appear as if you’re standing on the sky. It’s part holodeck and part high-tech hall of mirrors. Ji shows it off in the film’s beginning, and it’s not really a spoiler here to tell you that it is going to figure quite hugely in the thrilling climax. The building is a combination office building and residential building with a center that features a wildlife park 2000 feet in the air complete with huge waterfall. The Pearl is quite a nice computer-generated setting that takes you nearly a mile into the sky.
The film falls short of Die Hard when it comes to the bad guys. They’re really pretty thinly developed and aren’t going to breath the same rarefied air as Alan Rickman no matter how high in the sky the film plays out. Rickman’s Die Hard bad guy is one of the best in film history. Skyscraper? Not so much. The real highlight is leather clad Xia, played by Hannah Quinliven, who kills with a stone-cold stoicism that allows her to steal a few scenes throughout the film. But again, she’s no Alan Rickman. So don’t really look so hard for character development or any kind of a connection here. You get just enough of Sawyer’s family and cute kids to give you something of an emotional target to threaten.
This film is all about the stunts. Sawyer’s catchphrase is “If you can’t fix it with duct tape, you’re just not using enough duct tape.” Yeah, I know it’s not “Yippee Ki-Yay Mother ….”. But it is kind of amazing what Johnson can do with the sticky standby. He does some Spider-Man glass walking with the stuff, and there’s a lot of hanging from breaking pieces of building. Johnson is a bit of a MacGyver throughout the film. He doesn’t exactly piece together an army tank out of paperclips and an old sneaker, but I felt a lot of that kind of methodology throughout the film. You can say that they take the slip-and-just-catch-yourself gimmick perhaps a little too far. Some of the stunts are truly spectacular, and they feed into the amusement-park-ride theme for the evening. That’s the only way you’re going to have fun here, and there is plenty of fun to be had.
The CGI is pretty good throughout. There were a couple of moments when the film does bring you to the ledge and makes you grip the theater seat a little tighter. But I have to say that some of the fire didn’t quite pass the smell, or rather choke test. CG fire is an odd animal that can really ruin a good danger moment, and it does for me here. Yeah, I know. They weren’t going to set a huge building on fire, but I have to admit I believed the fire in the 40+ year old Towering Inferno more. I think there were some missed practical f/x moments here that would have blended well with the environments to keep me gripping that seat a little tighter, and certainly a little longer. Overall there are some spectacular magic tricks here.
The film sets out to entertain, and it honestly does that well. I’m afraid that seeing a skyscraper on fire these days does elicit some memories of 9/11, and I suspect some of you might have a problem there. Johnson plays a virtual superhero here. One scene in particular feels like something out of a Marvel film as Johnson holds a collpasing bridge together long enough for his family to jump a gap by pulling on separated cables much like Spider-Man trying to hold a ferry together or stop a subway train. I felt like I got off an E-ticket ride, and I think I might have even gotten a few tips for some home repairs I might get inspired to try. “Got any duct tape?”