Review: Thurber’s ‘Skyscraper’ is a Towering Achievement in Absurdity
by Adam Frazier
July 12, 2018
With box office receipts exceeding $3 billion around the world so far, Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson has solidified himself as a global box office powerhouse. In recent years, the wrestler-turned-actor has earned a reputation as the hardest working man in Hollywood, starring in hits like Central Intelligence, Moana, The Fate of the Furious, and Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle from last fall. Even his misses are still massive successes — both San Andreas and Rampage earned over $400 million worldwide, despite underwhelming critical response. Now, only three months after his last theatrical release, Johnson continues his shock-and-awe campaign for box office supremacy with the action-packed, Hong Kong-set skyscraper disaster film Skyscraper; further testament to the movie star’s enduring commitment to quantity over quality.
Written and directed by Rawson Marshall Thurber (Central Intelligence, We’re the Millers, Dodgeball: A True Underdog Story), Skyscraper stars Johnson as former FBI Hostage Rescue Team leader and US war veteran Will Sawyer. Wounded in action and now an amputee, Sawyer works in the private sector as a security risk expert. On assignment in Hong Kong, he is tasked with performing an independent risk assessment on the Pearl, the world’s tallest skyscraper, to determine the superstructure’s safety and security limitations. The brainchild of Chinese software developer Zhao Long Ji (Chin Han of The Dark Knight), the Pearl is 225 stories and more than 3,500 feet high. The marvel of modern technology is the Titanic of skyscrapers – a vertical city complete with a five-star hotel, six-story shopping mall, a Michelin three-star restaurant, the 30-story Jade Park, and more than 100 floors of luxury residential suites.
A truly dedicated family man, Will brings his wife, Sarah (Neve Campbell), and their two children Georgia (McKenna Roberts) and Henry (Noah Cottrell) along for the trip to Hong Kong so they can experience the Eighth Wonder of the World for themselves. While Will is evaluating Zhao’s offsite facility, a band of terrorists led by Kores Botha (Roland Møller of Atomic Blonde and The Commuter) set fire to the Pearl’s 96th floor, trapping his family above the fire line. Complicating matters, Will is framed for the terrorist attack and is a wanted man on the run from the Hong Kong Police Force. Now, the American hero must risk life and limb to get back inside the world’s tallest skyscraper, fight the terrorists inside of it, and rescue his family from the burning behemoth before everything goes down in flames.
Pitched as The Towering Inferno meets Die Hard, Skyscraper feels like a drug-addled Roland Emmerich constructed an American Ninja Warrior course, doused it in gasoline, torched it with a flamethrower, and forced Dwayne Johnson and Neve Campbell to complete it in under two hours. Does that make Skyscraper a bad movie? Not really — Thurber’s screenplay does that. Known primarily for comedies like Dodgeball: A True Underdog Story, Thurber wrote and directed Johnson’s wildly successful Central Intelligence, so it’s easy to see how the duo would collaborate on another project, but Skyscraper isn’t an action-comedy. It’s designed from the ground up as a pulse-pounding action-thriller, like something by John McTiernan (Die Hard, Predator) or Christopher McQuarrie (Jack Reacher, Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation & Fallout), but Thurber’s comedic instincts make set pieces feel more like poorly structured jokes with preposterous punchlines than pulse-pounding action sequences.
Skyscraper is a movie that dares you to take it seriously. It’s brainless escapism, but the over-the-top action is so unabashedly absurd that it’s impossible to believe in anything you see on the screen. In one unbelievable scene, Johnson free-climbs a 1,000-foot-tall super-crane, maneuvers it into position, and then breaks a world record by performing a 30-foot Olympic long jump off of it into the burning building. It doesn’t help that the cartoonish action is accentuated by computer-generated imagery that makes the movie look like an ugly, inexplicably dull video game. Another scene has Johnson fashioning gloves out of duct tape so he can scale the outside of the self-sustainable building to gain access to its gigantic wind turbine. As he clumsily shuffles along the ledge he mutters, “This is stupid.” I have to agree.
As for the rest of the characters caught up in the action, they feel reverse engineered to serve the needs of the outlandish action. Who could scale the world’s tallest building with a prosthetic leg, rescue their family from terrorists, and make it look easy? The answer is, of course, Dwayne Johnson, but the script goes a step further by making sure you know he’s a military hero with experience in hostage negotiations. Campbell plays a Naval surgeon who did three tours in Afghanistan and speaks Cantonese because she has to kick terrorist ass and plead her husband’s case to the Hong Kong Police Force. Campbell is a great actress who does a lot with very little here, but there just isn’t much for her character to do but wait and get rescued. Young Henry has asthma, because of course. Nothin’ like threatening a child with a respiratory condition with a little smoke inhalation to manufacture some suspense!
Chin Han’s Zhao is like Jurassic Park’s John Hammond, or William James Pirrie – the businessman who designed the “unsinkable” Titanic, except the billionaire builder doesn’t take away anything meaningful from his hubris. He’s the same guy at the end of the movie as he is at the beginning: a rich dude who just wants to build impossibly tall phallic symbols. As for the villain, Møller’s deadly serious Kores Botha has got to be one of the most generic bad guys I’ve seen in recent memory, complete with a name straight out of the Star Wars Expanded Universe. We spend the entire film watching Johnson’s Sawyer perform one impossible stunt after another, and we’re supposed to believe his life could be threatened by some dude in a flak jacket and cargo pants? I know the Rock can’t always fight Vin Diesel, Jason Statham, or Hunter Hearst Helmsley, but a boss battle with a Daddy™ of equal measure could’ve been fun.
Despite being defiantly dumb and not a lot of fun, there’s still something about Skyscraper that makes it insanely watchable, and that’s Dwayne Johnson. Johnson is so charismatic — so genuinely likable — that it’s hard to hate on the guy. He’s made a lot of not-so-great movies over the years, but he’s never given a flat-out bad performance. Johnson’s always fully committed, and no matter how unbelievable the story is, you still believe in him; if only the rest of Thurber’s action-disaster movie was as just authentic as he is. Luckily, Johnson’s Skyscraper will make a ton of money, and any negative reviews will be forgotten by the time his 2019 slate, including Disney’s Jungle Cruise, the Fast and Furious spin-off Hobbs and Shaw, and of course Jumanji 2, pummels us into submission with his undeniable charm.
Adam’s Rating: 2.5 out of 5
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