8 out of 10
Dwayne Johnson – Will Sawyer
Directed by Rawson Marshall Thurber
Is Skyscraper a Die Hard knock off? Sure it is. When Die Hard came out, there were a lot of action films in the early 1990s trying to capture that same lightning in a bottle. There were a few good ones, a few serviceable ones, a lot of bad ones. A lot of them were pitched as “Die Hard on a _______”, and that blank was filled with a lot of nouns you learned in kindergarten. Now we come full circle, with DIE HARD IN A BUILDING, aka Skyscraper. But here’s the thing: in a summer full of superheroes, spaceships, and dinosaurs, I’ll happily sit down to a good old fashioned throwback to those action movies of 25 years ago, especially one as well done as Skyscraper. Sure, it’s the same playbook, but Skyscraper has a lot of personality, with interesting characters, well made action set pieces, a solid sense of humor, and a running time that never overstays its welcome. There’s no bloat on Skyscraper, a welcome change to a lot of summer blockbusters that go on too long. Skyscraper is in and out in a tight hour and forty or so minutes, and each moment builds on the one before it.
This is one of my favorite Dwayne Johnson performances yet, too. It’s not going to win the man any Oscars, but we sympathize with his character quickly and Johnson plays him as realistically as he can. Johnson plays Will Sawyer, a former FBI agent who loses his leg during a traumatic hostage situation. He meets his wife Sarah (Neve Campbell) on the hospital gurney after the accident – she’s his doctor. Ten years later, and Will is a safety consultant in Hong Kong, referred to a huge Skyscraper project called the Pearl by his friend and former FBI partner Ben (Pablo Schreiber). The Pearl is a 220 story building, designed by Zhao Long Ji (Chin Han) as the ultimate luxury in living and business. Will’s family, including his daughter Georgia (McKenna Roberts) and son Henry (Noah Cottrell) live with him in the building. Will has a prosthetic leg and he’s put those years in the FBI behind him, happily raising a family with Sarah in Hong Kong. But Zhao has his secrets, and those secrets come back to haunt him when a mysterious man and his henchmen manage to set fire to the building and disable all the safety protocols. With Will’s family in danger, he quickly finds himself in a precarious situation with time running out.
Yeah, you’ve seen this before, probably quite a few times, but you won’t mind the clichés so much when it’s done as well as it is here. First, I have to pay compliments to the remarkable work of cinematographer Robert Elswit (who won an Academy Award for Paul Thomas Anderson’s There Will Be Blood), who has shot a stunningly gorgeous film here, with action sequences that are always coherent and elegant. There is obviously a ton of visual effects work going on here, but Elswit gives everything a lot of impact and realism. Equally up to the task is director Rawson Marshall Thurber, who along with editors Julian Clarke and Michael Sale keeps everything going at a sprint. There isn’t any fat on this movie at all, and yet Thurber also sets the stakes early. Skyscraper is an engine that, once it hits fifth gear, steadily propels forward.
It helps that Thurber, who wrote the script, also gives us good character work. Dwayne Johnson is always fun to watch and easy to root for, but Neve Campbell steals every scene she’s in. She’s no damsel in distress here – she’s quite capable of taking care of herself and her family, thank you, and the relationship between Sarah and Will is that of equals. There are a few familiar faces in the cast, including Noah Taylor who practically has a neon sign above him that flashes BAD GUY from his first scene on, but Skyscraper is having too much fun to play it subtle. If there’s any issues with the film it’s that it’s a bit weak in the villain department, with the main baddie a very watered-down Hans Gruber type. Once the villain’s motivation is revealed it’s yet another retrieval of a hard drive/doodad that we’ve seen many times before.
What keeps Skyscraper working is Dwayne Johnson’s committal to the action and the part. In so many of his movies Johnson makes them work, seemingly, by his will alone. He’s always at a hundred percent, and I’ve never seen Johnson do anything halfheartedly. It’s that commitment that informs his performances and makes us so eager to cheer him on, even when the movies themselves aren’t quite high quality. But watching Skyscraper, I realized just how much I’ve missed movies like this. Sure, it’s just as fantastical as any superhero science fiction movie, but sometimes you just want to see ordinary people in extraordinary situations, and while Dwayne Johnson is’t anyone idea of an ordinary person, he puts as much adversity and as much struggle into his work here as those action heroes from yesteryear. Skyscraper is much more enjoyable than I expected, and in a summer where we’re starting to get a little fatigued at the same kinds of stories, even a little nostalgic action movie like this reminds me that if you stick some well-written characters together with some challenges and decent action, you’ll get something entertaining pretty much every time.