As the age of the movie star gives way to the age of the brand, one man stands as stoic as his name implies: Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson. The massive, charismatic heel wrestler turned heroic actor mostly succeeds as a movie star for reasons that aren’t too complicated when you look closely: a.) He’s a living special effect, and b.) his public persona is a carefully managed brand in and of itself.
It sounds cynical; it probably is. I don’t necessarily mean that as a slam, though. Pro wrestling taught him well: There’s a power to simplicity and relatability that can overcome absurdity, and it speaks to an audience of people who enjoy simple pleasures in their action movies or action-packed stage shows. Johnson’s villains are amoral, selfish pricks who coast to success on their looks, strength, and charisma (Get Smart, Doom). His heroes tend to have blue-collar roots; maybe they’re doing the work of unsung heroes like rescue workers (San Andreas, Baywatch), or they’re dealing with deep internal conflicts that can’t be punched through (Pain & Gain, Central Intelligence), or it could even be a little of both (Gridiron Gang). Even in his big franchise role in the Fast & Furious movies, the anger that runs through Hobbs is implied to be as much of a character flaw as it is a point of attraction. One of the subtle takeaways of his work is that physical strength and talent is not the be-all, end-all; it’s how you use that talent, and it’s often what’s inside your head that gets you.
Given Johnson’s struggles with depression, which he’s been up-front about recently, it’s not hard to see the genuine place where this all comes from. That’s part of why the so-called “brand” works for him; unlike many action heroes, there doesn’t appear to be much to see through. He knows what he looks like, he knows people like seeing him beat ass or get his ass beat, and he does his level best to use the platform he has to put something positive into the world. Beyond that, he’s a damn good actor when he needs to be, he puts in the work on set (by all accounts), and while it’s been a minute since he’s taken something like Southland Tales, he’s open to experimentation under the right circumstances.
Skyscraper is not an experiment, at least not for him. It’s a mashup of Die Hard and The Towering Inferno that marks writer/director Rawson Marshall Thurber’s attempt to do a serious action movie after making his bones in comedy with Dodgeball: A True Underdog Story, We’re the Millers, and Central Intelligence. (He’s tried drama once before with an adaptation of Michael Chabon’s The Mysteries of Pittsburgh, but I haven’t seen it and I don’t know anyone who has.) It’s a good example of how Johnson’s brand works: with almost any other actor in the lead, this would probably sound boring, but Johnson’s name carries the expectation of something that at the very least comes right from the heart, or as close as it can when this much money is in play. It does, and God bless Thurber and Johnson, it almost works.
The humanist hook that Johnson makes his bones on is there in the trailer; he’s playing Will Sawyer, a small-time security consultant with a solid action movie name who happens to be short one leg. One might presume he did something heroic and paid the price, but even with his clear conscience, he doesn’t quite feel whole, making his emotional journey all about pulling his sense of self back together in order to save his family from the terrorists who have infiltrated the state-of-the-art high rise he’s working on and set it on fire for reasons we don’t know.
Turns out it’s a lot more complicated than that. We’re introduced to Will in a flashback to ten years prior, as a member of the FBI’s elite Hostage Rescue Team called to assist local PD after a man has taken his family hostage. Will and the team breach and find the man holding his young son, seemingly unarmed. Will talks the perp down, the perp puts down his son, then promptly detonates the bomb vest he’s apparently been wearing this whole time.
Now, we can get into issues of tactical plausibility: I doubt HRT would breach without at least a quick background check, and given the suburban setting and the desperate, strung-out characterization of the father, such a check would likely suggest that explosives could somehow be in play. Add in the officer down on the scene, and it gets pretty hard to believe that HRT wouldn’t light the guy up on sight, son in his arms or no. Forgiving that, however, it’s a dark, brutal start for a Dwayne Johnson movie; he doesn’t just fail, he fails miserably. Women and children are dead, teammates are scarred. The empty space below his knee isn’t just Will’s incompletion, it’s an eternal reminder of just how badly he messed up.
Even his family is a circumstantial reminder; his eventual wife Sarah (Neve Campbell) is the surgeon who saved his life, literally and figuratively. She’s introduced looking tenderly upon Will, her head framed by the halo of a surgery light. It’s not subtle, but this movie isn’t too interested in subtlety; it runs a crisp 102 minutes and Thurber doesn’t have the time or the steady hand required to paint in fine strokes. Fortunately, such a hand isn’t missed here; Thurber’s smart enough to give Sarah stuff to do besides be a trophy for the hero, making her cool under pressure, observant, and more than able to hold her own in a crisis like this one. Given such a character, Campbell steps up, reminding me why she was such a great leading lady for the Scream series. Beyond that, she’s got excellent chemistry with Johnson; consider that the film, striving for brevity, goes right from Will and Sarah’s first meeting to the present day, where they have two kids (McKenna Roberts, Noah Cotrell) grown enough to have their own fairly mature personalities. It’d be hard to swallow without a strong bond between Johnson and Campbell, and the connection they portray not only implies that they fell head over heels for each other, but that there’s a whole other movie to be had about their courtship.
Of course, that movie isn’t an action movie and is therefore not relevant to our interests, but between the speed at which Will’s family came together and some obvious yet not inappropriate monologuing, we get enough of a sense of that journey and where it’s left Will emotionally. He’s not somebody who misses the “action” of HRT; he lives only for his family now, done with death, perhaps more done with the risk of causing death. Again, if you can put aside the questionable nature of the hostage situation that went bad and started Will on this path, it’s honestly a solid first act for an action movie. There’s some clunky exposition that holds it back—clunky in the sense of how obvious it is that the information we’re being fed will come back into play later on—but it’s got a strong main character in Will Sawyer, and he’s set up for a powerful catharsis.
“Serviceable” is a backhanded word to describe the second act, but vanilla tends to be the hardest flavor to get right, and Thurber’s got some tricks up his sleeve to keep things interesting. He’s good at giving random mooks little personalities and quirks that make them seem bigger than they actually are, making it all the more surprising when they’re randomly bumped off. It’s a slight edge that he gives himself in his script, but it kept me on my toes, wondering where this was going. Furthermore, there’s Johnson carrying the whole thing. He can turn on the charisma and make lines hackneyed blue-collar wisdom (“If you can’t solve a problem with duct tape, you’re not using enough duct tape”) feel almost like John McClane one-liners, but he can also project a vulnerability and fear in the moments where it counts. As discussed, Campbell backs him up well, as do the young actors playing their kids, but there are also solid turns from Pablo Schreiber, Chin Han, and Byron Mann found here.
More pressingly, however, Thurber’s set pieces are a blast; Will’s desperate entry into the titular skyscraper, “The Pearl,” is a highlight. Generally, Thurber’s experience in comedy serves him well here as he structures his scenes like gags: Start with a wild premise that sets up a problem for the hero to solve, have him come up with a crazy but plausible solution to that problem, then throw in a hitch or two that forces the hero to improvise even crazier solutions on the fly. Comedy taught Thurber how to pace those scenes and time those hitches, and while I’m not ready to hail the arrival of a new action talent just yet, I’m more than happy to see if he can build on this.
Unfortunately, the film’s problems start to present themselves in the second act. As much as I wondered where the film was going when characters I thought would be important started dropping like flies, the characters that rose up in their places promised that it wasn’t going anywhere worthwhile. Kores Bortha (Roland Møller, Atomic Blonde, The Commuter) is appropriately intimidating and vicious as the lead villain, but he’s about as interesting as toast. His lead henchwoman Xia (Hannah Quinlivan) at least has a look, but neither one of them has a strong relationship or parallel to our heroes, nor do I get any sense of a unique, original thought going through their heads. Bortha’s just an asshole, and Xia just likes hurting people; it’s not that it can’t work, but if they’re not going to enhance the emotional conflict that the beginning of the movie sets up, they should at least be fun to watch.
That all feeds the astonishing disappointment of the third act. To his credit, it’s here where Thurber pays off a metaphor so brazen that I almost wanted to throw him a wad of cash like the one Jimmy Conway threw to Spider in Goodfellas. Besides that, you’ve got the reveal of what Bortha was trying to do—it involves nullifying a failsafe that, as soon as this plan was set in motion, most reasonable people would probably activate—and you’ve got the final shootout, which takes place in what I can only describe as a high-tech house of mirrors; it’s something that sounds cool on paper, but in practice it’s just confusing and leads to a bunch of “You think I’m over there but actually I’m over here” gags that leave you with no concept of the scene’s geography. Chad Stahelski barely pulled this off in John Wick 2. Rawson Marshall Thurber is not Chad Stahelski. This unsatisfying action scene leads to an unsatisfying climax that opts to win the day with a cute trick over an emotional reckoning, that leads to Thurber overplaying his hand to deliver an overwrought, unearned catharsis.
It’s Johnson’s brand that justifies this film’s existence, and it’s Johnson’s talent—alongside Campbell’s—that makes it easy and even fun to sit through despite its boring antagonists and blown landing. It’s likely that Johnson’s brand will run out of power one day, not necessarily for any reason within his control. Movies like Skyscraper might not damage his brand, but it’s not going to be among the ones he’s remembered for. And that’s a pity; derivative as it is, it’s still well-intentioned, and for about 45 minutes there, it was on track to be something special.
Watch the trailer here:
All images via Universal Studios.
Written & Directed by Rawson Marshall Thurber
Produced by Beau Flynn, Dwayne Johnson, Hiram Garcia, and Mary Parent
Starring Dwayne Johnson, Neve Campbell, Chin Han, Roland Møller, Pablo Schreiber
Release Year: 2018
Running Time: 102 minutes