Skyscraper: Come Out to Hong Kong, Have a Few Laughs, by David Bax
It’s obvious that, with Skyscraper, writer/director Rawson Marshall Thurber and star Dwayne Johnson (reuniting after 2016’s Central Intelligence) set out to make an updated version of the brawny, one-man-against-the-world action movies of the 80s and 90s. That they succeeded is due not only to their skill and commitment but also to which parts of the era they chose to update. Sure, the visual effects are state of the art but Johnson’s hero also represents a refreshingly 21st century take on masculinity. He’s got a military background and is built like a skyscraper himself but he’s also a sensitive, gray-bearded family man whose wife and kids are more to him than plot devices. Skyscraper lets us go back in time without regressing.
Johnson’s Will Sawyer has traded in his fatigues and rifles for wool slacks and a briefcase, using his expertise to start his own business as a security consultant. Thanks to a recommendation from an old friend (Pablo Schreiber), he’s traveled with his family to Hong Kong for the biggest job yet of his fledgling new career, inspecting the safety of the new world’s tallest building–a mixed use behemoth of over 200 stories designed by billionaire Zhao Long Ji (Chin Han)–so that it can be signed off on by an insurance company (represented here by Noah Taylor at his most reptilian). Unfortunately, all of the above are present on the night that a squad of heavies, led by Danish actor Roland Møller, break into the building to steal something from Zhao’s personal vault at any cost.
Will’s wife, Sarah, is played by Neve Campbell, a welcome presence who graces movie screens far too rarely of late. One of Skyscraper‘s strongest choices is that Sarah has a storyline (and a military background) of her own; she spends less time captured by the bad guys than Will does and is integral to uncovering their plan. Given its cinematic forebears, this movie may be the most unexpected Bechdel Test pass all year, with Sarah communicating with her daughter (McKenna Roberts), with a police sergeant (Elfina Luk) and, if you trade words for kicks and punches, with a formidable henchwoman (Hannah Quinlivan).
Thurber is able to make plenty of room for multiple heroes and multiple teams of baddies in the gargantuan building known as The Pearl. With its 30-story indoor park (complete with waterfall) and the “pearl” itself, a massive spherical holodeck, the location turns Skyscraper into something that at times approaches science fiction; it’s Die Hard on a spaceship. Speaking of that classic Bruce Willis movie, the comparisons are inevitable. Wisely, Thurber steers into them with specific references like Will tying something around himself in order to dangle off the building or, at one point, performing the de rigeur bit of self-surgery.
Still, Skyscraper never tries to beat Die Hard at its own game, instead locating its own strengths, one of which is in the sheer height of the building. Computer generated though it may be, Thurber and Johnson sell the reality of its scale. If you’re even a little bit acrophobic, prepare for a racing heart, sweaty palms and a desire to look away from the screen for a moment to confirm you’re on solid ground.
Skyscraper is not without its faults. Steve Jablonsky’s score is as anodyne and unintrusive as pharmaceutical commercial music. And there are a multitude of ludicrous narrative conveniences. But, hey, the easier the plot goes, the more time we have for action. There are explosions galore–including flaming trees crashing to the ground and an indoor helicopter crash–and the stunt and fight choreography is impressive, repeatedly finding inventive uses of Will’s prosthetic leg. As a go-for-broke, full-budget-on-the-screen action movie with a lead you can root for guilt-free, Skyscraper rises above.