The premise of Dwayne Johnson’s latest disaster-based action movie is certainly intriguing: Under what circumstances would a sane man run into a burning building if he wasn’t an actual firefighter?
You probably don’t even have to know the actual plot of Skyscraper to guess that the answer is: If his family is trapped inside. And it really is that simple. It doesn’t really matter than the building in question is the tallest one in the world and that his family is stuck on floors in its top half because, per usual, Johnson’s Will Sawyer isn’t just some schlub off the street; he’s a war veteran and former FBI Hostage Rescue Team leader who was seriously injured during a job and lost a part of his leg in the process. Although not technically a superhero in any of his movies (yet), he’s built like one, and his characters’ actions frequently defy logic, gravity, physics and every other law of nature.
You could almost make a case that Skyscraper is the spiritual sequel to Johnson’s San Andreas, which also had him chasing down family members while structures collapsed around him during a catastrophic seismic event. But impressively, writer/director Rawson Marshall Thurber (who also worked with Johnson on the comedy Central Intelligence, and who directed We’re the Millers and Dodgeball) makes Sawyer a bit more grounded than many other characters Johnson has played. For example, after his injury, he meets an Army field surgeon named Sarah (Neve Campbell, making a welcome return to the big screen), and the two eventually marry and have two children.
Will also has started up his own security company that specializes in skyscrapers, and he hasn’t touched a gun in 10 years. When an old FBI colleague (Pablo Schreiber) calls him in to run the final security check on the aforementioned tallest (and supposedly the safest) building in the world, a 220-story structure known as the Pearl, in Hong Kong, he knows that getting this high-profile gig could set him up for big jobs down the road. He meets the billionaire owner of the Pearl, Zhao Long Ji (Chin Han), and is shown some of its impressive features, including a mid-building, glassed-in garden, massive wind turbines that power the structure, and a type of virtual reality sphere at the top that seems to serve no other purpose than make for a cool spot for a standoff in the film’s climax.
Perhaps not shockingly, Skyscraper is the type of movie in which most of the cool or unusual things we see in the first half of the film come back in the second half as key story elements—almost ridiculously so in places.
As Sawyer finalizes his security check, he’s attacked not once, but twice, by people attempting to steal a tablet he’s been given that contains more or less the keys to the kingdom that is the Pearl’s security and safety protocols, which are immediately disabled right as a group of bad guys set fire to the building about halfway up. They believe that the only people in the building at this point are the owner and his small staff (which includes Noah Taylor; note to filmmakers: if you want to telegraph that someone on your team will be revealed a turncoat, hire Noah Taylor) up in the building’s penthouse. But it turns out that Sawyer’s wife and children are also in a residence they’ve been given while he completes his inspection (the entire upper half of the Pearl will eventually be residences), and they are much closer to the source of the fire. As these events unfold, Sawyer is outside the building a mile away, and thus begins his race to save his family.
If I’ve done my math right, the entirely of Skyscraper takes place in the space of maybe 12 hours. Ignoring the fact that Johnson either climbs or walks up the whole building in that timeframe (no elevators at his disposal, due to the fire), his ascent is actually fairly impressive, if not all that believable. Johnson and Thurber make us feel every milestone along with Sawyer. He gets sweaty, dirty, beaten, bruised, burned, and bloody to such a degree that we actually feel his pain most of the time.
At times, it’s clear that his attachment to his family is meant to be seen as a weakness, despite the fact that it’s also motivating him to be the type of hero he gave up being 10 years earlier. The lengths the filmmakers go to to keep a gun out of his hands during the course of this story seems quite deliberate in a film where the Sawyers are nearly the only Americans. And that’s fine, but it certainly doesn’t stop the bad guys from mowing down entire rooms filled with people in this PG-13-rated work.
A particularly impressive aspect of Skyscraper is that it doesn’t relegate Campbell to simply being the protector of the children, although she does that quite competently. We almost forget that she’s former military as well and can handle herself quite handily in a scrape. She gets to kick many asses, including one belonging to one of the film’s coolest villains, a particularly nasty assassin played by Hannah Quinlivan. They have a knock-down martial arts-style fight in the film’s final moments that is maybe the best hand-to-hand sequence in the movie.
I also liked the local police leaders, Inspector Wu (Byron Mann from “The Expanse”) and Sergeant Ha (Elfina Luk), who at first believe Sawyer is in on the terrorist plot (which boils down to destroying an entire building to get ahold of one disc drive), but actually listen to reason and assist him at key moments. One of the weaker elements of the movie is the primary baddy, an international gangster played by Roland Møller (Atomic Blonde), who is a bit too overtly sinister to actually feel threatening.
But the bulk of Skyscraper is about the impressive special effects (especially when compared to Johnson’s previous two fantasy-oriented works, Jumanji and Rampage), impossible stunts, and better-than-average (especially for an action film) use of all of the major players in terms of avoiding making them all one-note creations. And as much as I didn’t want to fall for it, the idea that Sawyer is disabled and uses his artificial leg as part of his arsenal of tools to fight the bad guys is magnificent and a noble way to pay tribute to wounded warriors.
Skyscraper’s obvious cinematic touchstones are films like Die Hard and The Towering Inferno—in fact, the movie is a perfect blend of the two. But it requires just enough suspension of disbelief from the audience to make it almost feel like we’re watching a superhero movie. These beyond-human feats are the type we’ve come to expect from Johnson, and that’s what makes it fun (to the point where you might actually laugh out loud in a couple of spots). This is one of his better efforts of late, and it seems particularly well suited for the summer movie season…even if it’s the summer of the late ’80s or early ’90s, because this sure does feel like the perfect tribute to the kinds of action movies I remember seeing then, even if it plays on the more modern fears that all tall buildings are targets.
Did you enjoy this review? Please consider supporting Third Coast Review’s arts and culture coverage by becoming a patron. Choose the amount that works best for you, and know how much we appreciate your support!