Review: Skyscraper

Distributor: Universal Pictures

Director: Rawson Marshall Thurber

Writer: Rawson Marshall Thurber

Composer: Steve Jablonsky

Starring: Dwayne Johnson, Neve Campbell, Chin Han, Byron Mann

Genre: Action, Crime, Drama

Can I tell you a secret? I kinda look forward to movies starring Dwayne Johnson. San Andreas, while flawed, was deliriously entertaining. Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle was sneakily more meta and intelligent than expected. Whereas Rampage had no business being as good as it was, leaving me no choice but to rank it higher than Infinity War in terms of pure enjoyment. Give him a script that by every right should be bad, and Dwayne Johnson will make that sucker just a tad better!

So when I saw the trailer for Skyscraper, I was giddy with excitement! A poor man’s Die Hard but this time with the formidable Rock beating down terrorists amongst an inferno. Yes, please! It sounds gloriously dumb! I just want to enter the cinema, kick back, switch off the brain and have some fun, and Skyscraper looks promising in that regard. Yet there is a fine line between cool and stupid. It’s all about tone. Rampage, while utterly ridiculous, didn’t take itself seriously and managed to charm its audience into coming along for the jaw-snapping ride. A similar film, Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom, didn’t pull off the same love, asking to be taken seriously when it simply didn’t deserve such respect.

We know before going in what type of film Skyscraper is going to be. There’s no Oscar potential here. So just aiming for fun, will it walk the fine line between cool and stupid, or will it fall into sheer idiocy with no hope of forgiveness from the audience?

Mathematicians have been calculating the arc of this jump for weeks. Will he make it? Will it be ridiculously glorious?

Content Guide

Violence/Scary Images: Gun violence. Many characters are either mortally shot or stabbed. Blood is seen seeping from their wounds. A fire engulfs a skyscraper and some are caught in the flames–their deaths are shown off screen. There’s a helicopter crash and it’s inferred that a person is chopped from the blades. Multiple fist fights. Children are held hostage and threatened with violence. Multiple scenes require a character to traverse and scale incredible heights. A bomb explodes and characters are caught in the blast.

Language/Crude Humor: The f-bomb is dropped. The s-word is said a handful of times. H*ll is also said.

Drug/Alcohol References: None.

Sexual Content: None.

Spiritual Content: A technological experience gives participants the feeling that they are high up in the clouds–it is referred to as “Heaven”.

Other Negative Content: Other crimes such as extortion, blackmail, and money laundering are present in the film.

Positive Content: Skyscraper strongly promotes the importance of family; how their care is above all else, and how they are the bedrock to our emotional wellbeing.

Review

The film opens on a quaint house surrounded by a thick layer of snow, slowly pulling out to reveal an intense police operation. Will Sawyer (Dwayne Johnson) bursts in, only to find that an unhinged father has taken a child hostage. During these opening moments, it dawns on the audience that this is a serious film…

When it comes to tone, Skyscraper seems to harken back to the contrived action set pieces of yesteryear. Like Speed, there’s a villainous presence, though for the majority of the film the protagonists fight to survive external mini-scaled disasters. In Skyscraper, the terrorists fade into the background while the raging fire takes precedence. The plot may sound incredibly similar to Die Hard, but the first half of the film feels more like The Towering Inferno. Granted, the titular skyscraper itself has been upgraded from past disaster fare, showcasing technological advancements that any action movie aficionado will know will be exploited later on in the story.

Skyscraper may resemble a likeness to The Towering Inferno and Die Hard, but the little tweaks to the setting, character motivations and themes make it distinct enough to develop its own identity. The Towering Inferno was about the folly of humanity’s ingenious new creations, whereas Skyscraper demonstrates that the best-laid plans are still no match against evil men with evil intentions. Meanwhile, John McClane struggles to save his marriage, while Will Sawyer has a healthy relationship with his loved ones–the film firmly sends the message that family is the source of strength.

Yet while Skyscraper is presenting different themes compared to the classic films before it, that doesn’t mean they’ve been executed well. Part gunplay, part natural disaster, the film feels uneven in its action as the movie’s antagonist continually switches between the terrorists and the terrifying flames. Unfortunately, one half is stronger and more exciting than the other.

Even though I legit suffer from pyrophobia, brought on from watching The Towering Inferno at the impressionable young age of 4 (true story), I still loved the fire sequences more so than the gun battles.

It’s the film’s disaster elements that win this unintended tug-of-war for the audience’s interest. The best scenes are the ones that involve Dwayne Johnson doing something utterly ridiculous around the outside of the skyscraper. The pacing slows, the tension builds, and the audience creeps forwards in their seat. There is one scene where The Rock is quite literally the only thing holding the set together with his bare hands (because of course, he is), and I genuinely second-guessed the outcome, excitingly wondering if the movie was going to take the gutsy route.

Yet that was the only moment where the film showed any ounce of unpredictability. The terrorist element of the story feels extremely generic. Skyscraper has a few gimmicks at its disposal, and sadly it wastes one of them during a fight sequence at the beginning, not the climax of the film. It’s unfortunate that the most original battle takes place so early on, as it only reinforces the audience’s unmet expectations, as they are naturally led to believe that the best is yet to come.

In reality, the rest of the film mostly consists of short gunfights or heavily edited fisty cuffs. These would have sufficed during the days of The Bourne Identity, but John Wick has since raised the bar, begging for more purposefulness and creativity within the action genre. This choppily edited style of presentation is now lackluster and boring. It’s even more painful to watch with the Hong Kong backdrop.

To the film’s credit, the setting is more justified compared to other recent action blockbusters. Cynics will know that the main reason why the movie takes place in Hong Kong is so that it can appeal to an overseas market. However, given that China is currently home to half of the world’s top ten tallest buildings, it makes sense that the film’s fictional skyscraper, The Pearl, is located near that region. With Hong Kong being a multinational city, it also isn’t a fair stretch of the imagination to see people of many nationalities converging to assist on the finance and oversight of such a monumental building. Unlike Pacific Rim: Uprising and a multitude of other recent action films, it’s not just set there randomly without reason, apart from wanting to capitalize on its box office earnings.

Yet the setting is also a giant tease. Despite being distinct enough to move out from underneath Die Hard’s shadow, Skyscraper still isn’t unique enough to stand out in the overcrowded action genre. It’s just average. It doesn’t really offer anything new. John Wick revolutionized the genre because it adopted elements from Hong Kong action cinema. This part of the world is king when it comes to this style of action, and here is Skyscraper trying to appeal to that market with its barely-there edited gunshots and fists.

It’s a film that’s just missing something extra–something that would elevate it to the next level. It may be because the villains feel too removed from the protagonist, or the audience is left in the dark for too long regarding the MacGuffin. Either way, the film falls flat in its current form, and I can’t help but wonder whether it may have fared better as an Asian production trying to appeal to the West, as opposed to the other way around. If the plot remained the same, but Will Sawyer is a martial arts expert, with his fights filmed with exquisitely planned long takes, then suddenly we’d have a kung-fu/disaster genre hybrid, something that would feel more unique.

Dwayne Johnson does well with what he has been given. For once he plays a real person! That is a fully realized character with normal human weaknesses. When he’s punched, cut, or does something incredibly strenuous, he tires and winces in pain. Yet he still has the upper body strength needed to make all the outrageous stunts feel believable. But this time he’s not the invulnerable monolith from Rampage, taking bullets and fighting giant mutated alligators alongside his tamed gorilla.

While it’s very entertaining to see his muscular physique used as an in-joke, what Skyscraper does instead is provide Dwayne Johnson with his most nuanced performance yet. Will Sawyer, an amputee, is a man humbled by his lot in life, though sometimes his circumstances cripple him to the point of feeling emasculated. He trudges on, his family giving him strength, though he has a distinct pacifist vibe throughout the entire film. He does grow throughout the film, though his journey is subtle. Maybe a little too subtle considering the genre.

Unfortunately, Will Sawyer is just not a big personality and is nowhere near as entertaining as Die Hard’s John McClane. This is not the fault of Dwayne Johnson–he fits the role perfectly. Rather, it’s the script that’s bland, complete with clunky lines where characters say their inner struggles out loud instead of showcasing their personality through the action. “I haven’t touched a gun in ten years,” Sawyer says in one stilted scene. “I just put my sword down, you know.” Oh boy.

In the end, am I disappointed that Skyscraper’s not some outrageous, tongue-in-cheek adventure? Do I feel hoodwinked by what was presented in the trailer? Not really. In today’s market, I don’t know how they could have advertised a Dwayne Johnson-led action extravaganza while also tapping into the film’s more restrained vibe. The actor’s past roles have subconsciously created a certain bias. Though I was pleasantly pleased, during this Marvel era, to stumble across a wild yet serious action film, reminiscent of the old school movies that were popular back in the 80s and 90s.

It’s refreshingly familiar, but at the same time Skyscraper feels generic. It features some great moments, but it’s also underwhelming. I feel like I’ve beat up this film when really it’s simply average. It’s entertaining but isn’t fantastic. It looks great on the big screen, but it’s not a must-see. It’s still fun… but this one’s just a bit more on the mild-mannered side.

Positives

+ Dwayne Johnson is actually playing a human this time around. + Crazy stunts involving fire and heights. + Tonally reminiscent of old school action films.

Negatives

- Clunky dialogue. - Uneven action; terrorist scenes aren't as tense as the fire sequences. - Choppy editing. - Bland.

The Bottom Line

Skyscraper is a serious but uneven action-disaster hybrid. Its tone is reminiscent of early 80s and 90s action flicks. However, while it’s unique enough to not be a carbon copy of Die Hard, the story is still too generic to offer anything new to either genre. It’s an average film, though there’s still some fun to be had.

 

6.5

Juliana Purnell

After obtaining a Bachelor of Dramatic Arts, Juliana Purnell has enjoyed a successful acting career, working within theme parks, businesses, and on film sets. She has also taken on crew roles, both in film and theatrical productions. When Juliana isn't working, she enjoys watching movies of all genres at the cinema, writing, and playing with Samson, her pomeranian.

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