The pitch that landed Skyscraper the greenlight, I imagine, had to have gone thusly: what if Die Hard but…less. And that’s certainly not a pejorative assessment. The similarities in structure are hard to ignore, but it takes that blueprint and deals in quick, digestible moves rather than thorough and contemplative increments. It aims to simple.
Or at least that’s the hope, because otherwise a statistically impossible confluence of serendipity would have had to be the driver behind this largely unremarkable action romp. It sets up its full circle, Chekhovian callbacks so clearly that you’d be hard-pressed to not guess the ending after the first 15 minutes. And the resolution to the entire caper is offensively unsatisfactory. But the ride along the way is competent and agreeable, if at times alarmingly unambitious.
The plot goes something along the lines of former FBI agent and hostage rescuer turned independent security consultant Will Sawyer (Dwayne Johnson) takes his family to Hong Kong for an exceptionally large gig in rendering his verdict on the safety systems of The Pearl, a 220-story megatall skyscraper with a pearl-looking superstructure at the very top. Things go awry, however, when a well-organized criminal group led by Kores Botha (Roland Møller) begins his attack on the building while Will is offsite.
This leaves Will’s wife Sarah (Neve Campbell) and two children (McKenna Roberts and Noah Cottrell) stranded above a quickly growing fire, one that the building is supposedly able to handle so long as no one, you know, turns off the safety systems. This leaves the majority of the movie following Will attempting to get back into the building, finding his family, and then getting them out. It’s straightforward and engenders a sort of video game sensation in the way boss battles often cap off a climb to the top of a tower.
If not for the casting, this movie would fail on many more critical components. The diversity is welcome with a largely Asian cast including Pearl architect Zhao Long Ji (Chin Han), Police Inspector Wu (Byron Mann), and esoteric enforcer Xia (Hannah Quinlivan), and they mostly manage to wring unexpected texture out of their one-dimensional (if that) characters. And Møller is, as always, a convincing menacing persona.
Johnson also is affable and charming as ever, though his need to express his concern and then tender affection for his family under duress while remembering to effect the limits of a leg amputation might be push the threshold of his acting abilities. (Big shoutout for having a hero with a physical disability, too.) But when you need an actor to be big, powerful, and unrelenting, he’s a goddamn good choice. And Campbell does an incredible job giving a gentle facade before surprising you with her ferocity.
It does, however, feel like it’s working rather hard to get these characters in and out of jams on a regular basis. It’s a real laying tracks while the train is going sort of thing with computer systems and explosions and weapons showing up when someone needs them. On one hand, it’s almost admirable in the way writer/director Rawson Marshall Thurber managed to cultivate in his debut DodgeBall: A True Underdog Story (see: Will using duct tape to solve, like, everything including Spider-Manning his way across a ledge), but on the other, please don’t.
By the very nature of this haphazard storytelling, it’s aggressively predictable. The pacing is appropriately zippy, but the rhythm tells you exactly when to expect a problem and then a solution to arise. It’s all shot fairly well, each sequence composed in understandable and whipping chunks, if edited a bit too eagerly. This leads to a modestly engaging but uninteresting and hollow experience.
And honestly, I’m not sure that’s as big of a problem as it should be in this case. We already have a Die Hard; we don’t need another. And in a revival era of cinematic auteurship, there’s something pleasing about not having to wonder what we should read from flattened depth of a shot juxtaposed to the color shift of the next. It’s a straight line from start to end.
(Mild spoiler in this paragraph: there is one narrative shortcut this film takes that is rather unfortunate. A character with facial scarring turns out to be a bad guy—worse yet, he’s the guy that lands the metaphorical knife in the back of Will’s back. That’s something media could do with less of.)
Not to say that is a laudable achievement (though let’s be real: completing any creative endeavour—good or bad—is laudable on some level), but it is worth noting going into this film. For a movie with the title Skyscraper, it ironically doesn’t aim high, but in that way, it hits its target.
Final Score: 6 out of 10